KUALA LUMPUR, March 24 — Abandoned by her mother when she was little and orphaned after her father and brother perished in separate accidents, Sasha Harless, the teen protagonist in Sarah Dooley's Free Verse, struggles to find her way in the small and possibly fictional American town of Caboose, West Virginia.
Though she comes under the wing of a kind woman called Phyllis, Sasha can't seem to escape her demons, nor can she cope with stuff happening around her.
When a schoolmate and another troubled youngster apparently commits suicide, she takes out her emotional turmoil on a dumpster, which unnerves the school bully, Anthony Tucker.
And if she is really, really overwhelmed, she tends to run away from home — perhaps seeking comfort in any semblance of the escape plan out of Caboose she and her late brother Michael used to talk about. From what I could glean from the pages and beyond, I suspect Sasha might be autistic.
The cycle of moping, acting out and running away goes on until she learns of a relative — an older cousin called Hubert who, like her late father, also works at the nearby coal mines. Then, there's also Mikey, Hubert's son.
Soon, Sasha doesn't feel alone anymore. She starts opening up to her schoolmates, Hubert, Mikey, Phyllis, and even Anthony, who she discovers is part of the school's poetry club. It's through poetry that our heroine finds another way to “escape,” cope with her troubles and make sense of her feelings and the world around her.
However, tragedy soon strikes, and Sasha falls back on the usual escape plan. This time, she takes little Mikey along, with dire results...
The book starts out real slow, with few clues as to Sasha's past and her condition. I guess I started paying attention when she hit that dumpster.
And again, when she started writing poetry, which impresses everyone in the poetry club, even the school bully and self-appointed head of the club. And again, when she's told one of her compositions is good enough to possibly win a competition.
And again, when Sasha gets the rug pulled out from under her just when things started brightening up for her. And again, when she deals with the tumult that follows, by penning more poetry. Almost a whole quarter of the novel is Sasha continuing her narrative, entirely in poetic verse.
We get poetry of all sorts — including haikus, cinquains, acrostics, quatrains and, of course, free verse -- on ruled pages that bring to mind a kid's notebook, some of which are “torn.” And since primers on how to write some types of poetry are smuggled into the novel, you can try your hand at writing a few.
Dooley's portrayal and treatment of the heroine and narrator, the town and its denizens is remarkably true to life. She really gets inside the head of this troubled but apparently talented girl. I Googled and couldn't find this town, but Dooley makes it sound like you can.
Maybe it's because, according to her bio online, she “has lived in an assortment of small West Virginia towns,” and she used to be a “special education teacher who now provides treatment to children with autism.”
Once Sasha's verses — or technically, the author's — start flowing, everything starts falling into place and things I initially found annoying — the slow pace, the small-town setting, the dialogue and the mundane puttering around these small-towners do — began to make sense.
And who can resist our young plain-speaking protagonist when even her normal prose sounds poetic: “On Sunday, it is pouring down sun. The kind of sun you can't get away from even if you want to; it's so bright, like orange juice, and it splashes into everything.”
Not to mention the wit. When she started writing poetry again after a hiatus, she realises that: “Swearing off poetry doesn't work the way swearing off lima beans does. I swore off lima beans in third grade and it worked. I swore off poetry less than a week ago and here I am.” You might know some people like that.
And here's a taste of what she can do, poetry-wise. Some words for what I think is her shrink:
Dear Dr Shaw,
Mr Powell swears
you know your stuff,
even though you give names
to things that should have
You call it “depression.”
You call it “anxiety.”
I call it “Look what happened.”
And it all happens within small-town settings, proving that adventures don't have to span incredible distances covered by, say, dragonflight.
Amazing, how I've found the words — enough for this piece anyway — in spite being sucker-punched into silence by the simple yet effective storytelling. Let me leave you with a few more words:
By Sarah Dooley,
Free Verse is a novel you
have to read. Like, NOW.
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
* Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer. This review was based on an advanced reading copy.