Friday, January 19, 2007

review, such as it is: The Rules of Survival

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. Dial, 2006
(0-8037-3001-2) $16.99

A National Book Award finalist, The Rules of Survival is an exceptionally powerful look at children in an untenable situation, what they do to survive, and what they don't do.

Matthew and his sister Callie have been a team for years, constantly on alert to protect themselves and their much younger sister Emmy from their volatile, irrational mother Nikki. But as the oldest, Matthew feels a special responsibility towards his family:

    "I was the director of our theater, arranging the stage set, telling you [Emmy] and Callie to take your places, prompting you to do or say this or that... 'Don't forget to hug her!' 'Go get her some Advil and a glass of water, fast.' 'Ask her is she'll help you with your homework later, she likes that.' 'Stop stomping around, she'll go ballistic.'

    "Of course, I had to act in the play as well as direct it. And all the while I was directing, and acting, I also had to gauge the reaction of our audience of one."

Living constantly with fear has changed Matthew, made even his "subatomic particles twist and distort." "I know I am not who I was supposed to be, who I could have been," he narrates, " and I know it's because I was too afraid for too long." When he witnesses a confrontation in a store, a man defending a little boy from the boy's violent father, Matthew is awestruck by the man, whose name is Murdoch: "He wasn't afraid. Or--if he was--he took action anyway." Seeing in Murdoch the hero his family needs, Matthew becomes obsessed with him, or the idea of him, an obsession that indirectly leads to Murdoch becoming part of all of their lives. And the result will be in some ways much less and in some ways much more much than Matthew had hoped for.

Abusive parents are hardly a new topic in young adult literature, but Werlin has moved far beyond the familiar here. As an older Matthew tells the story, in the form of a letter intended for Emmy when she grows up, it becomes more than a compulsively readable account of kids in trouble: ultimately it's about Matthew's growth from child to adult, about moving from being a person desperately searching for a solution to being someone who is capable of creating one, who thus has tremendous power and responsibility.

With the same fine touch for delineating complex moral ambiguities she's previously shown in novels like The Killer's Cousin, Werlin has created a story that is penetrating, achingly real and in some ways very frightening--overall, thoroughly unforgettable. * (13 & up)