Lessons from a Dead Girl, by Jo Knowles, is a powerful book that doesn't shy away from difficult topics. The "dead girl" of the title, as we learn in the first chapter, is Leah Green. Over several years, Leah imparted various lessons to her one-time best friend Laine. Many of these lessons were very painful. In this relatively quick read, Laine looks back over her experiences with Leah, trying to make sense of the friendship now irrevocably over, and her own part in Leah's tragedy.
Leah and Laine become friends in fifth grade, when Leah, the popular one, first shows an interest in Laine. Laine responds to Leah with immediate acceptance and subservience (patterns that will continue):
"I run to her obediently. Who wouldn't want to be seen hanging out with Leah Greene? She's smart, so the teachers love her. She's beautiful, so the boys love her. Even the boys who still say they don't like girls. And because all the boys and all the teachers love her, all the girls want to be her friend -- and learn how to be just like her." (Lesson 1: F. F. = Friends Forever)
It's not clear at first why the pretty and popular Leah decides to become best friends with the less popular and boyish-looking Laine. But Leah turns out to be controlling, compelling, and toxic. And she quickly reveals a particular agenda for her friendship with Laine. An agenda that involves both domination and sexual experimentation, in the guise of practicing for their eventual relationships with boys. Laine, longing for acceptance, is confused about how to feel, but participates:
"A strange, prickly warmth spreads through my body. I sit perfectly still and let her kiss me. I let her hands pull me toward her until my chest presses tight up against hers and our hearts pound against each other. I keep my eyes closed tight and let her do what she wants." (Lesson 2: Forever is a Long Time)
After that, things get complicated. While the friendship between Leah and Laine continues, the likely root cause of Leah's behavior is revealed, as are the secrets of another friend. And as the girls get older, Leah starts to really make trouble, for herself and for Laine.
This book is not for younger readers, even though it starts off with the characters in fifth grade. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, and teenage drinking are all at least alluded to. It's not a "clean read". But I think that Lessons from a Dead Girl would make a great discussion book for high school students, especially those who have been, or might be, bullied or abused. According to the cover material on my copy, "the inspiration for Lessons from a Dead Girl came from an article about kids abusing kids."
Through Laine, Knowles tackles questions about friendship, sexual orientation, and standing up for oneself in abusive situations. Leah and Laine are both complex, multi-layered characters, and Knowles doesn't ever take the easy way out in describing their reactions. The relationship between Laine and Leah, though disturbing, rings true. Anyone who has ever had a friend who was the more charismatic one, or had a friend who usually called the shots, will be able to relate to Laine. Even though the details of this particular story are fairly dramatic, the friend to friend dynamics are, no doubt, played out in middle schools and high schools every day. Jo Knowles has captured this phenomenon brilliantly.
Publication Date: October 9, 2007
Source of Book: ARC from the Candlewick "Books Worth Blogging About" program
Other Blog Reviews: Tea Cozy, YA Fresh, Reading Rants!, The Faerie Drink Review
Author Interviews: Alice's CWIM Blog, The Faerie Drink Review
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.