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Big Picture

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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Living Dead Girl

By Elizabeth Scott

“The thing is, you can get used to anything. You think you can’t, you want to die, but you don’t.” So says the narrator, now fifteen, who over five years ago was kid- napped by her captor, Ray; since then she’s been renamed “Alice” and turned into the fetishized and submissive sexual object of Ray’s pedophile dreams, with repeated rape her daily norm. Kept compliant by Ray’s violence and his threats against her family, she yearns to put an end to her torment, so when Ray wants her to find him a new younger girl, she initially sees a replacement as her only way out.

Kudos to Scott, formerly known as a capable creator of solid, swoony romance (Bloom, BCCB 7/07), for making this story legitimately harrowing, since it would be a travesty if it weren’t. While promotional copy suggests similarity to Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, this is actually more of a complement than an echo; here the story is Alice’s tormented, straitened life and the way she’s been shaped into someone whose options have almost entirely disappeared. That shaping is literal as well as figurative, with Ray controlling her body by starving her to keep her preadolescent skinny (aching with hunger, she steals food when she can, despite the beatings she receives for it) as well as dominating her every moment. Nor, it’s clear, is she merely tragically buffaloed by a seemingly powerful adult, since the deaths of Ray’s mother and the previous Alice’s parents demonstrate that his repeated threats to kill the narrator’s own long-unseen parents aren’t propaganda; she’s prevented from suicide by Ray and by her own body’s traitorous will to live (“The thing about hearts is that they always want to keep beating”). Most poignantly—and provoca- tively—the story finds culpability in the larger world beyond Ray: Alice observes with chilling intensity the blindness and indifference of outsiders to signs of her plight (“Three life lessons: 1. No one will see you. 2. No one will say anything. 3. No one will save you”), and she’s right; even the policewoman who clearly grasps that something is wrong in Alice’s world fails to connect that terrible wrongness to Ray. The talk shows that are one of her few links to the outside world berate their victimized subjects, insisting that “You Should Have Done Something,” that victim- hood is a failure on the victim’s part; “All our fault, always,” Alice concludes.

If there’s a broadly relevant message here, it’s the rejection of that view. Readers searching to find a “why” for Alice’s fate that would make her culpable will search in vain. This didn’t happen because she was weak, or timid, or foolish in a way the other children weren’t, it happened because her captor was so opportunistic and clever that he could mimic plausibility in a way that fooled adults as well as his victim—it’s his venality, not her deficit, that causes and maintains the situation. Yet the book doesn’t sanctify Alice as a gentle tormented fawn; molded by her experiences, she relishes her brief moments of power, whether it’s snapping a little girl’s pencil or using her sexual knowledge to control a teenaged boy, and there’s little sympathy left in her for others. Her taut and fragmented narration is revealing as well as effective, a sign that the cohesive personality was suffocated years ago and that she is now, as she herself matter-of-factly states, “all wrong.”

If this were a sentimental rescue drama, all of this agony would be relieved by a life-affirming final restoration of its protagonist to wholeness. The book is too honest for that, however; knowing that Alice is damaged and tormented be- yond the reach of any simple happy ending, it instead allows her to find a grim salvation in cessation of her torture, breaking of the cycle, and reclamation of her own name as she dies. Avoiding the prurience that would make this simply genre horror, this is searing and heartbreaking, a story of unimaginable human suffering imagined and conveyed in a way that may prod readers to consider other human pain that we daily blot out. Even readers who come for some movie-esque drama will find themselves shaken by their time in Alice’s world.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Russell Gordon from Living Dead Girl ©2008. Used by permission of Simon Pulse.

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This page was last updated on September 1, 2008.