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Southwest Book Review: 'Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah' by Erin Jade Lange

Tomorrow is the Young Readers Festival in Flagstaff, a breakout event of the Northern Arizona Book Festival. One of the headliners is Erin Jade Lange, an award-winning author of contemporary young adult novels. In this month’s Southwest Book Review, Mary Sojourner takes a look at Lange’s latest work, "Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah." It’s a compelling—and frightening—story about friendship, bullying and trust. 

Her grade school classmates called her Worms. Her real name is Sam, and the worms are burn scars caused by an accident with her drug addict mother’s attempt to cook meth. Sam is alone—as only an adolescent can be. Her mother is perilously in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and Sam has become the high school pariah. She responds to her isolation by making herself even more cut off. Then, in a night of terror, she becomes far less along. Sam, along with York, the high school football jock-bully; his classic nerd brother, Boston; and Andi, a former Barbie Doll teen queen who now wears Medusa-like dreadlocks find themselves companions in what at first seems to be a horror movie, but they learn is real life.

Erin Jade Lange writes teen dialogue that is pitch perfect. She develops her characters seamlessly. The reader never asks, “Where did that personality quirk come from?” She understands how hurt kids develop connections—clumsily, fearfully and with great intensity, and she writes those connections with humor and deep respect. Lange writes, too, about familial disconnection, about missing mothers and parents who are present physically, but light years away emotionally. Remarkably, she writes those absences without judgment. The reader understands how little control we humans have—whether we are teens or parent, cops or criminals, drug addicts or dealers.

“Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah” is the perfect read for anyone who brought themselves through a hard childhood; or knew the icy world of the high school outcast; or grew up having to be the grownup in the family. And, it is an even more powerful read for adolescents living those brutal stories today. The book takes place—and is taking place—everywhere in America, especially where troubled kids learn they can find comfort in learning to trust—and in each other.

There was no Young Adult Fiction when I was growing up. If there had been, “Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah” might have been my trail map, a guide to knowing that I was not alone—and that I had value.

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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