Verdict/Summary: Being a teenager is hard enough, but Julia and David Scheeres really had it rough. Readers will empathize with seventeen year old Julia’s honest voice as she remembers her strict upbringing in rural Indiana, her horribly dysfunctional childhood, her traumatic introduction to sex, her conflict between wanting to fit in at school and her desire to defend her beloved adopted black brother David from racial taunts, and her stubbornness of spirit after being sent to a totalitarian religious reform school in the Dominican Republic.
Although Julia wrote this as an adult, she uses the first person present tense to give a sense of immediacy she experienced as a seventeen year old. (As loyal readers of LitHacker may know, I am completely over FPPT in YA fiction, with rare exceptions. But in this case, as a memoir, it works.) Julia’s narration also works because it is a bit removed: it captures her emotions at the time, but it also looks at them and other peoples’ actions somewhat dispassionately. You infer that the Julia today is embarrassed at her teenaged self or appalled at the hypocrisy and coldness of her parents, but it all comes across without having to be explicit.
Although most of the book is about how adults in her life cruelly used religion to control and punish her and David, the parts of the book that I thought were most shocking were the ones about her introduction to sex. While there are many upsetting elements to Julia’s experiences with sex, her look back at this topic is nuanced and surprising. As with her experiences of torment at the reform school, this gal refuses to label herself as a victim.
No hacks, just some observations: In the post-memoir interview questions, the author admits that one of the hardest parts of writing the book was hearing herself think as a seventeen year old again. Julia allows her younger voice to reveal her teen self as cowardly, judgmental and sometimes plain snotty. Sometimes it is difficult to empathize with young Julia when she seems to make such bad decisions. I also wish the book had talked more about her older, kinder (and still faithfully Christian) siblings and about how they survived their upbringings and how they reacted to David and Julia being shipped off to reform school. I think it would have given a more balanced view of her family dynamics and a better context for the story. That is the thing to keep in mind with all memoirs: it’s the author’s prerogative to show you whatever slices of truth belong to them.