This is a story about Duffy (Defoe) Chavez, a ten-year-old living in East LA in the 1960’s. She is in-and-out of foster homes and has recently been reunited with her four siblings after being taken by child protective services when she was younger. It is told in first-person from Duffy’s POV and follows her along for approximately a year as she navigates a world where it is far easier to lie and cheat than to be kind. You are first introduced to her dysfunctional family: Artie and Justine are the oldest (and most protective of Duffy), Barbie (as the name suggests, very into clothes and being mostly horrible) and little Chase, who Duffy is basically raising while her mother works two jobs.
You are watching the story unfold through the eyes of the child, but a very perceptive and intuitive one. Duffy is a genius, and has tested out of sixth grade, but should technically be in 8th with her IQ. However, she is always hesitant to highlight her accomplishments because she knows this can trigger an abusive episode with her mother (Rennie). Duffy is targeted by Rennie far more than any of the other children, and often draws fire to protect her younger brother, Chase. The reason for which is alluded to later on in the narrative when Duffy overhears a conversation between Rennie and the woman (‘Lise) that owns the market down the street. The two women are in a relationship off and on and briefly discuss a history between them involving the fathers of their children. However, this is never discussed again, which I found to be a bit of a disappointment. I recognize that Duffy wouldn’t have access to this history (and the mother would never tell her such a thing) but I felt that I missed out on exactly why it was painful for Rennie to be around her daughter, when Duffy tried so very hard to please her in every way.
The mother is an intriguing character, and it would be easy to paint her as a one-dimensional villain, heavy-handed and unloving. However, the author gives enough softness to her interactions to allow the reader to see her as she is, a woman that is complex, troubled, and incapable of dealing with loss. Despite the cruelty, Duffy, being the intuitive youngster that she is, recognizes that her mother doesn’t know how to cry and has to make her daughter cry for her. Which was a heartbreaking realization to witness from one so young. You also observe her siblings following along Rennie’s path in a lot of devastating ways, where being cruel is easier than taking care of someone.
The author is able to capture this girl’s voice so well that everything you see from her eyes is kind of magical. Which is impressive, given the hardships she faces. Even after being betrayed and mistreated by so many, she still sees so much joy in the world that it’s hard not to follow suit in our own lives.
That’s not to say that this book isn’t without problems. I noticed some repeated words in the second half that should’ve been caught in addition to a few awkward phrases that forced me to reread some passages. I can’t say whether this was because I was hearing it through a child’s filter, or if it was something that could have been cleaned up just a bit more. Additionally, there were some events that I would have liked to learn more about within the narrative.
Overall, this book was a breath of fresh air from a lot of books that I’ve been reading recently. I cried (a few times honestly) and there were points in the narrative that were just so difficult to get through, but I never wanted to stop. I believe this is a testament to the author’s skill and I highly recommend you pick this one up. But grab a box of tissues. The nice kind with lotion.