When Abby’s one-time friend whispers to her, “You’re dead,” Abby knows it’s true. Maybe not dead physically, but dying inside.
Avoiding Georgia and Kristen, who make snarky remarks about her weight in the lunchroom, the sixth-grader makes new friends, including two Indian-American boys whose easy tolerance is refreshing. Fleeing a home visit by the two bullying girls, she meets 9-year-old Anders, whose father is also dying inside. The Iraq War veteran is frightened by much of the peaceful world of the family horse farm, where he waits for space in a VA hospital. For “Tubby Abby,” farm visits are both physically and emotionally helpful. As she did in The Secret Language of Girls (2004) and its sequel, The Kind of Friends We Used to Be (2009), Dowell weaves themes of friendship and personal growth into a rich and complex narrative. A third story strand follows the desert fox Abby meets in the overgrown lot across the street from her house, adding a fantasy element and further connections. Like the fox in the Wendell Barry epigraph, some of Abby’s tracks are in the wrong direction. But her resurrection is satisfying.
Middle school mean girls are not uncommon, in fiction or in life, but seldom has an author so successfully defeated them without leaving her protagonist or her reader feeling a little bit mean herself. (Fiction. 9-12)