By J. M. Reep
Copyright © 2009
$13.95 - Paperback
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Have you ever been in a situation in which you have been uncomfortable? Where you don't know what to say? Or, when faced with a new task tend to panic? If you understand any of those feelings, think how Leah Nells feels, because every minute of every day is a struggle for her to get through. Not even comfortable spending time with her own mother and father, after all, they are probably going to ask her questions that she won't be able to answer, Leah lives a very isolated existence. And things are about to get worse. She is 14 years old and will be starting high school. She'll have to contend with a new campus, new classes, new teachers, and perhaps worst of all, more students. The thing that Leah clings to are her books. Even the books Leah reads are different from the norm. She won't read novels, and tends to like lengthy, non-fiction books with very few pictures. For example, some of the titles Leah picked out were The Little Book of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, The Biomechanics of Insect Flight, Attracting Birds to Your Backyard, and The Social Construction of the Ocean. Now, don't get any ideas about Leah being a top student, because she isn't. When she has read all of the books she has on hand, her mother will take her to garage sales and Leah can pick out any books she wants, and her mother will buy them for her. Or at least that's how things used to be.
As she approaches high school, Leah's mother becomes more and more frustrated with her socially awkward daughter. It is her greatest wish that Leah fit in and make a friend or two. Her wish is so great, that she pushes Leah in ways that are in some respects cruel. For example, at the start of Leah, Leah and her mother are cruising garage sales, and at the last one they visited, Leah found a book she wanted and her mother handed her the money and told Leah she would wait for her in the car. Now Leah, thrown into an unexpected situation, was unable to cope with the expectation that she pay for the book instead of her mother, and was unable to face it, so she put the book down and returned to the car in shame. Her mother was upset that Leah couldn't make a simple purchase at a garage sale.
Mrs. Nells clearly comes through as one of the biggest antagonists in Leah, and I'll admit that Mrs. Nells was the character I disliked the most in the book. I understand wanting her daughter to achieve more, and I understand Leah is a difficult child in many respects, but having a mother who has been my champion my whole life, I found Mrs. Nells animosity toward her daughter disturbing.
At the mention of her name, Leah stood up and started to go downstairs, but she stopped when her mother said, "No, I'm OK. Cooking helps me take my mind off things, and that's what I need right now. And leave Leah in her room. I don't want to see her right now."
"I'm still upset with her."
Leah sat back down on the stairs.
"Because of what happened on Saturday?" Mr. Nells asked.
"Partly. I know it's not the first time she's behaved like that, and it sure won't be the last time, but I just hate it when she's so difficult in public. I can't help but wonder what other people must think. Like I told her, she's fourteen already, but she still doesn't even have the courage to buy a book unless I'm standing right there holding her hand."
"She'll learn. It'll take time, but she'll learn. She just needs some help."
"Well," Mrs. Nells said with conviction, "I don't know who's gonna help her, but it's not gonna be me! I've had it with her. If she wants to hide in her bedroom forever, then that's fine with me. We've done all we can for her—it's up to her now."
I know several parents who are unable to sever the cord with their children and continue to enable them well into their adulthood. But at 14, I believe a mother should still be there to support her child. If the statement was made right after the incident, I could even discount it as letting off steam, but to still be angry with your child for the inability to make a purchase on their own two days after the fact is carrying the animosity to a degree of disproportion. Most parents would be delighted that their 14 year old had difficulty in taking money from them and spending it. Antagonists in literature are necessary, and Mrs. Nells is certainly not the worst mother in the world, just not very likable. The primary antagonist in this piece is Leah's silence itself. Her inability to communicate verbally except for on a minimal basis is Leah's deepest shame, and her greatest desire is to overcome her silence.
So many questions filled her mind. Why did she have to be the only girl at school who was shy? No one else had any trouble talking to people or making friends. It didn't seem fair. Why me? she asked herself. Was this what her life would always be like? Was this moment, alone in her bedroom, unhappy, not only her present and her past but her future as well? She had so many questions, but here in the isolation of her room, there were no answers. Only silence surrounded her and offered itself—the same silence that had been her lone companion throughout her life. Only silence; always silence.
J. M. Reep gives us a calm and thoughtful novel bringing us into the mind of Leah and her struggle against herself. The quality of Reep's writing is excellent, and the characters are clearly drawn and realistic. Leah is a detailed character study of shyness and introversion. One of the concepts I found to be most unique was the use of Leah's books, many of which she didn't even like, as a way to pass time. Leah liked to read them slowly, because if she read too quickly, then she would have to suffer through another trip with her mother through garage sales to pick out some more. She didn't really enjoy reading the books though, and this concept seemed especially foreign to me. Of course, like Leah, I read avidly as a youngster, and still do to this day, but unlike Leah, I enjoy the books I read, and if a book bores me, I move on to the next. Life is too short to read boring books. I thought it a strange twist to have a character clinging to books like a toddler clings to a security blanket, and have the character not really enjoy the books she clings to. Leah brings to those of us who are not crippled by shyness an understanding of those who are, and for those who identify with Leah Nells a sense of relief from the knowledge that there are others who struggle against debilitating introversion.
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Originally reviewed for the LL Book Review
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