Girl, Don't Push Your Luck

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Life isn’t the Disney channel. Bad people aren’t always caught. The innocent suffer, wicked people flourish and evil goes unpunished.

Avery Anderson is learning this day by day, hour by hour. She’s a biracial girl who’s just broken up with her girlfriend and we come to see how racism and her own hot temper came between her and her ex.

The novel takes us through Avery’s awkward steps towards adulthood. Her mother’s motto is “focus forward” but Avery finds the past has a tendency to cling and sink its painful claws into the present. She wants to keep herself unattached to Bardell, Georgia so she can uproot herself and go back home. But she can’t help but be attracted, both to the small town environs and her two new friends, Simone and Jade.

But, again, life isn’t a Disney movie. Her new friends ultimately prove as problematic as her old ones. Jade has troublesome ties to an antebellum, racist, southern past due to her father’s sumptuous mansion that used to be a plantation home. Jade’s grandfather may have been involved in a terrifying hate crime for which he was never punished. Simone is a lesbian but she’s not out and the thrill of a clandestine affair swiftly turns to discomfort as Avery realizes she’s becoming Simone’s dirty little secret.

Avery realizes that everybody has a past and it’s not always pretty. She suffers through the passionate emotional swings that characterize adolescence and that scares her. She has what she calls a “dragon” inside her, which is the name she gives for her simmering temper that occasionally erupts in harsh words in spite of her best attempts to stifle it. She’s always sorry afterwards, deeply miserable over the harm her hurtful speech produces but she can’t seem to help it.

In the midst of this churning emotional stew is Mama Letty, a hard-smoking, cancer victim who has her own tangled ties to her daughter, Avery’s mother Zora. The constant battles among these three women makes for taut drama, much of it tied to a past the two older women are reluctant to share with Avery.

The ugly shadows of racism, homophobia and family secrets weighs down the reader. There are moments of joy, color and vibrancy within the pages, however. Part of Avery’s passionate roller coaster stems from soaring in happy instances to plunging into misery-charged confrontations. The author manages to make us feel every single one of Avery’s feelings and to experience both vindication and dismay as she vents feelings and airs thoughts that are too full to be suppressed.

If there’s someone who comes off as a little blank, it’s Avery’s father, Sam. He has no real ties to Bardell save for his marriage to Avery’s mother. Mama Letty calls him a “white hippy”, dismissing him from any meaningful connection with her. Sam is often thrust into the role of the ineffectual peacekeeper when Avery, Zora and Mama Letty rage at each other. He himself rarely argues and expresses no disappointment when Avery constantly blows off their trips outside of Bardell to hang out with her new friends. Sam and Zora are genuinely in love but their close moments mainly serve to exclude the unhappy Avery.

He comes off as a Goody Two Shoes. There’s nothing wrong with that except that his calmness and bliss don’t form an integral part of the drama so much as an oasis for Avery when she can’t cope with her mother and grandmother’s “Sturm und Drang”.

The novel brings us uncomfortably close to the underlying stain of hatred that is very much a part of America and is much closer to our present than some would like to admit. Yet, more than that, we are given the gift of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who must learn from the other females in her life just how much she has to give in this world.