WCOB #3: The Strictest School in the World
Two Opportunities for Author Interaction

Trigger: Susan Vaught

Book: Trigger
Author: Susan Vaught
Pages: 304
Age Range: 14 and up

Trigger, by Susan Vaught, begins as teenager Jersey Hatch is preparing to leave rehab, a year after, so people tell him, he shot himself in the head. Jersey doesn't remember shooting himself, nor does he remember the year leading up to the shooting, but he knows that he and the people around him have been scarred by it. His father is damaged, though a solid, supportive, presence. Jersey's mother isn't coping as well. His parents' marriage is on shaky ground. Jersey's former friends haven't been to see him, and he knows that his lifelong best friend, Todd, can't stand him anymore.

The only people who treat Jersey with any degree of normalcy are Todd's younger sister, Leza, and Leza and Todd's grandmother, Mama Rush. Mama Rush and Leza both try to help Jersey figure out why he shot himself, a mystery that seems to involve Todd, and/or a former girlfriend. The suspense of Jersey's quest for understanding is mixed with scenes depicting his re-adjustment to home and school.

Jersey is physically and mentally disabled, with limited use of his left arm and leg, patchy short term memory, and difficulty controlling his words. Trigger is told in Jersey's first-person voice (as his thoughts, not as something structured that he's written down). Jersey's thought patterns are scattered, and he frequently obsesses on particular words or ideas. He can't keep from blurting out words that are on his mind, often at inappropriate times. It's a fascinating window into what it might be like for an otherwise intelligent person to learn to live with brain damage, and an utterly unique voice for a novel. Here are a couple of examples:

"Pay the driver. Pay the driver. I could do easy math. I could count change and money and stuff. If I remembered to pay the driver. If I walked off and forgot, he'd call the police and send me to jail. Pay the driver. I clung to my memory book and the bills Mom had given me. The plastic bag with Mama Rush's presents felt heavy on my weak wrist. Don't forget to pay the driver. Jail. Don't forget to keep enough money to get home. Jail. Don't forget to pay the driver." (page 44)

"I put my memory book down on the first step and climbed up as carefully as I could. My headache made the hall seem too long, but I ignored that. That was imagining. Halls didn't get longer and shorter. The noon sunlight came out of rooms in weird ways, making patterns on the floor. I walked across the patterns. The gold in my shoelaces glittered." (page 221)

Author Susan Vaught is a full-time neuropsychologist, and I think that her background brings a particular authenticity to Jersey's problems. Her jacket flap bio says that she "has helped many patients with difficulties like Jersey's. The words and struggles of her adolescent patients often occupy her mind and inspire her creativity."

Although the general topic of Trigger is dark, Jersey's inappropriate phrases add some mild comic relief. A favorite phrase that becomes a bit of a catchword, for instance, is "frog farts". Mama Rush also adds some humor, though she represents wisdom, too. She's a wonderful character, this chain-smoking old black woman on a purple scooter who accepts no nonsense from anyone, and is unphased by Jersey's differences.

Jersey is the ultimate unreliable narrator. By surviving his suicide attempt, he ends up in the unusual position of seeing first-hand the damage that he has wrought. His memory loss, and his quest to understand why he did what he did, work well at keeping his problems at a distance. Jersey doesn't understand any more than anyone else does why he would shoot himself in the head. This bafflement makes the book bearable, even suspenseful, for the reader, in a way that a straightforward account of "here's why I wanted to kill myself" might not. In some ways, Trigger is a hopeful book, too. Despite some major flaws, and some bouts with despair, Jersey wants to fix things. He wants to "glue" his broken mother back together, to make amends to people, and to figure out how to live his life now.

Trigger doesn't feel like a "message" book at all, because Jersey is a such a strong, immediate character. However, there clearly is a message to the book, a message about the damage that a teen can do to other people by committing suicide. The book also gives voice to people who have physical and mental difficulties. This is a compelling book about a serious issue, written in an unforgettable voice. I recommend Trigger for high-school students, boys or girls, though I would hesitate to give it to middle schoolers. The book also contains an end section outlining suicide warning signs, steps to take, and listing resources for help. Additional resources are available from the author's website.

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: August 2006
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: HipLibrariansBookBlog, Great Reads from FCL, and Cynthia J. Omololu (in The Edge of the Forest)

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.