Saturday, April 27, 2024

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, by Kim DeRose

Witchcraft stories full of teen girls forming covens are not a genre that has ever held much appeal to me.  While fantasy novels with magic are fine, the whole witch thing always seemed a bit pitiful.  I figure that the audience for this type of book was some fourteen year old mini-goth with family issues and a lack of friends at school. But in this book, the author has thrown that bias right back in my face.  For, while the premise of the story sounds like some teen's pathetic revenge fantasy, the novel is anything but.  In fact, it's a pretty scathing screed against sexual violence that subtly creeps up on you before smashing you on the back of the head with a brilliant purple ball of magic.

Elliott is getting tired of the group for teen survivors of sexual abuse that she's ended up in.  The other girls in the group just seem weak and resigned, unwilling to fight and instead merely trying to cope.  Elliott is angry, full of rage, and wants to do something.  Group therapy isn't enough.

She's found a new path.  Amid a pile of her deceased mother's belongings, Elliott has found a book that claims to allow its readers to practice magic, to right wrongs, to do whatever the person who casts the spells within it needs.  Following the book's instructions, Elliott recruit other girls from the group and they form a coven. Though all of them are skeptical about magic, the book surprisingly delivers on its promises and soon the girls are devising terrifying vengeance upon their assailents.

Their acts of revenge are effective but provide little comfort.  Instead, their spells cause unintended collateral damage and prove less cathartic than they hoped.  As they progress through their grim business of punishing the guilty, the girls find themselves pulled in different directions.  Some of them are scared of the results while others can't get enough of the thrill.  Would it be better to give up and move on or is it time to escalate and attack larger and larger groups (after all, finding misogynists is not particularly difficult)?  Meanwhile, their use of magic is having unexpected physical effects on their bodies.

On the surface, the novel is well-written and well-paced.  The story stays interesting and the characters are fully formed and wonderfully discrete and different.  Their stories though are what takes this to another level.  A vast majority of the YA novels about sexual assault are pedantic and simplistic.  The violence depicted is clear cut and the fault obvious.  This has always bothered me because it creates a false narrative that a young person will be able to easily identify when they have been victimized.  Reality is not always so clear cut and the stories that DeRose has chosen to depict really stand out.  Every single incident is a clear case of rape, but none of them would be easy to argue in a courtroom.  That makes the stories so much more painful to read because you know that a vast majority of real-life cases are like this.  And most people don't have access to a magic book of spells.

The final element that really takes this novel into the realm of overachievement is its depiction of healing.  While ostensibly still relying on spells and witchcraft, the book concludes with a powerful metaphor that evades simplistic homilies about acceptance and forgiveness.  Instead, it calls on cultivating allies through trust and confronting false friends.  Real world victims may not have a spell book, but they do have a coven of friends and family and plenty of magic within on which to draw.  From the depressing terrain that DeRose looks at unflinchingly, she finds a magical ball of hope.

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