Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: "The Girls of No Return" by Erin Saldin

Lida has nothing in common with the other girls at the Alice Marshall School for Girls, the camp where troubled teens are sent to resolve their problems with spirit-enhancing nature hikes. Their wounds are superficial and their stories of woe too rehearsed, too tidy, to be genuine. She won't tell them so, of course. Lida won't say anything at all. 

Her infatuation with an elegant new girl draws her out of her silence, and puts her in the line of fire. The camp's resident hooligan, Boone, is as offended by Gia's prideful grace as Lida is enchanted by it. Rumors fly about Boone's murderous temper. As Boone and Gia's rivalry builds to violence, though, Boone offers Lida her friendship--a dangerous gift that Lida is afraid to reject.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin (2012)
4.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: violence, description of self-injury
Overall Response: Brrrrrrrr.


More Thoughts (But First, An Aside): 

My friend Della just launched her own book blog, The Gorgonist, which you should visit at once. In one of her inaugural posts, she produced a book rec for every one of Taylor Swift's recent hits. I promptly put a half-dozen of them on hold, because Della likes fun books. (On the other hand, Della is also responsible for me reading Code Name Verity, and for that I may never forgive her.)

The book which Della associated with the song "Bad Blood" settled right down into that carved-out hollow within my heart where wilderness adventure stories live. Erin Saldin's The Girls of No Return, picks up the torch dropped by Hatchet, Downriver and My Side Of The Mountain. Then it tosses that torch into the puddle of gasoline that is mental health and queer issues. It's everything that The Miseducation of Cameron Post failed to be. Reading The Girls of No Return was like having a nightmare, but waking refreshed and ready to face the day.

At the Alice Marshall School for Girls, trust is the most important commodity. That's the linchpin of the story: whom do the characters trust with their various secrets, and what does their chosen person choose to do with that trust? In essence: have they have placed their trust in someone worthy?

For example, a great deal of carefully-maintained bullshit hits the fan when the campers' parents visit. In well-meant conversation with each other, finding their own much-needed support as fellow parents of troubled teens, the parents share their children's struggles. Then they mention it to said children. Suddenly, the campers are in possession of secrets their peers never meant for them to know. The fallout is a emotionally gruesome.

Speaking of parents, I appreciated Saldin's nuanced portrayal of families. Throughout the story, Lida's first impressions of people are proven false--including her views of her own father and stepmother.

The price tag attached to the Alice Marshal School for Girls experience is a quiet minor key playing constantly in the background. For some parents, no amount of money is too much if the counselors can only redeem--or, failing that, simply preserve--their child's life. (At which point I recall the cry of the Blaus in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden--"Can't you figure out why she is doing this before she burns herself up?") Other parents are willing to shell out the big bucks as long as they don't have to deal personally with their troubled offspring.

In both cases, the solution boils down to throwing money at the problem until it gets better. Except that "it" is a human being.
"In the world of wilderness therapy schools, we're the equivalent of a misdemeanor. There are other schools that are more like felonies." 
I didn't quite get the difference, but I didn't say anything. Was that all I was? A B-grade miscreant?
One area in which The Girls of No Return fell short was Lida's reason for attending the camp. Lida guards the secret even from the reader, as she should; Lida's reticence to discuss herself, even in the privacy of her own mind, is fully in keeping with the portrait Saldin has painted of her narrator. But the secret Lida hides is something I would expect other girls at the camp to be hiding as well. In such a place as the Alice Marshall School for Girls, frankly, Lida's secret scars would probably be par for the course.

Perhaps Saldin intended for the reader to have this reaction. Perhaps she didn't mean that Lida's secret was terrible and unspeakable because of its nature, but that Lida's secret was unspeakable because of Lida's fear of revealing it. If so, unfortunately, that doesn't come through in the text--one of the only times the book rings false.

Overall, Lida makes for a great storyteller--the second successful first-person narrator I've encountered in a month, after a long line of same-same-same.

Saldin commits to a troubled and unglamorous narrator, which pulls Lida out of the usual YA heroine lineup. She is never revealed to be secretly beautiful, or popular without realizing it. She is called out on her bigotry (which the reader may have excused as typical for a YA novel, until another character reads Lida the riot act for ignoring those too "average" for her.) She is not the twee "unlovable" tea-guzzling bookworm, a stereotype which Lida overtly rejects at one point. She is the girl who is always overlooked, without a secret store of talents or courage or wit to see her through.
There was a muffled ocean roar in the trees above us, and it was so cold that we breathed heavily through our mouths and only smelled the deliberate sharpness of the air when we stopped to drink.
Saldin's writing is rich with sensory imagery. I smelled the air when reading the lines above, and remembered camping trips of my own when I wore the same dew-damp sweatshirt and jeans for days. Her metaphors are spot on as well, such as when Lida describes trying to befriend Gia, who doles out personal truths one word at a time, as "trying to take a bath in a few inches of water."

She employs physical motion to convey characterization, usually to great effect, like Lida's father rocking on his toes as he introduces her, "whether in nervousness or pride," or Lida following Gia around "like an embarrassed cat." Granted, there are a few stumbles; for the life of me, I have no idea what it looks like for someone to walk "hips first, as if daring her legs to catch up."

The simplest thing I can say in this book's favor regards its unusual approach to character virtue. Characters who appear vicious may reveal a kind side--but it doesn't negate the times and ways that have been selfish and cruel. Similarly, an unsuspected ugliness can arise in someone we trust (even in our narrator!), but the reasons we love and trusted them may not be erased.

The book is genuine without being "edgy." I can't express to you my relief when Lida reacts with a real person's anger, a real person's foolishness, rather than as a scripted plot point. It's easy to sink into Lida, without ever mistaking her for a cipher (hello again, Cameron Post!) The harshness of the book ultimately has nothing to do with the fact that it ends with knife fights in the woods and everything to do with the characters.

I read The Girls of No Return twice in quick succession, letting it sink in, reflecting upon Lida's Dante-esque descent. I haven't made up my mind yet whether it's a book for the permanent acquisition shelves. I'm not sure it has the richness of material (or the density of quotable gold) that will have me rereading it year after year. Nevertheless, I do grant it an unhesitating thumbs up and my recommendation as the wilderness adventure book about girls and knife fights you never knew you wanted.


  1. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover art plus your review makes me want to read this book.

    1. Then both I and the cover artist did our work well. :)