Can we handle the truth?
In Sara Zarr‘s first novel, Story of a Girl, one young woman’s life is almost spoiled by the truth… at least when it comes to the details of her biggest mistake.
When young Deanna’s misguided adventure with an older boy in a car is exposed for all the world to see, she is forced to live with the consequences. Her peers, her community, her family… no one can meet her gaze in quite the same way again.
But are the consequences appropriate for the crime? Why are girls condemned when it comes to sexual indiscretion, while boys run free? Why can’t her father forgive her, and move through the crisis with her? Has the truth of the matter really been perceived at all? Wouldn’t the truth, in totality, allow for the possibility of healing, and include all of those who bear some responsibility for what happened?
These are compelling questions, and challenging issues to explore in any medium. Writing about them for young adults is an especially difficult endeavor, as parents may flinch to find their teens reading about such tough stuff.
But Sara Zarr strikes the perfect balance, writing about this territory with the authenticity of having been there. She seems to have a photographic memory when it comes to the nuances of high school experience. And while Deanna’s trials are fictional, Zarr writes about these emotions and exchanges with a knack for observation. With powerful restraint, she shows respect to her characters and to her readers, leaving certain details unspoken in trust of our own imaginations. But she brings characters to vivid life through charged conversations and situations in which the stakes are very high indeed.
Story of a Girl may be on the shelf in the Young Adult section of bookstores. But it’s an essential addition to the genre that will challenge adults as profoundly as it does youngsters. This is the world teens live in. If this book makes you uncomfortable, take a walk through your neighborhood high school sometime. See if you can handle the truth.
I had the privilege of corresponding with Sara Zarr recently, and to congratulate her on the honor of being a National Book Award finalist with her very first book. Sara and I met in a fiction workshop in Santa Fe in 2005, guided by the great novelist Erin McGraw. I was working on the sequel to Auralia’s Colors, quite a different kind of storytelling entirely than what Sara was up to. But I was taken by Sara’s lively, engaging prose, and we became fast friends. Turns out we were born in the same week, and signed our first book contracts inthe same month of the same year. We’ve been chatting about our experiences and challenges ever since, and I’m a big fan of her blog. (I even took the profile picture she’s currently using on Facebook!)
So, it is with great pleasure that I welcome Sara Zarr to The Eagle and Child, and I hope you read her book, so you can say “I read it before she became a superstar.” (But you’d better act fast, because it’s happening as we speak.)
Congratulations on having Story of a Girl chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award! You must be on Cloud Nine, or even Ten.
Take us through your reaction to the news, and your feelings as the news sank in. Did you even let yourself imagine such a thing before it happened?
Thank you! I have, of course, imagined getting awards and honors and I’ve even let myself imagine things that are not in the realm of reality such as what witty stories I can tell on Letterman. However, at the time I got the call about the National Book Award, I’d completely forgotten that it was that time of year or even that the NBAs existed. It’s great to get that kind of news when you’re not expecting it. I think it’s still sinking in. About a week after the announcement, I had a little meltdown about what it all means and I had a “fear of success” moment. My husband, a genius, said, “If you think of this (success) as a compliment, and not as success, then you could count it learning to accept compliments gracefully.” So that’s how I want to continue to see the nomination — as a wonderful compliment.
In Story of a Girl, we get an up-close-and-personal perspective on Deanna. And because of her mistakes and the pressures of teen life, she’s misunderstood and judged by those around her.
In a lot of stores like these, misunderstood characters are defended passionately by the storyteller, and the peripheral characters are shown up as being irrational and wicked and cruel. You see characters through a more forgiving lens. You see flaws in your “heroine,” and you seem to find redeeming qualities in other characters as well. Is that difficult for you as a storyteller? Are you tempted to make somebody a scapegoat?
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