Becoming Phoebe by J. Michael Neal

Becoming Phoebe

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A teenage athlete strives to overcome a traumatic past in this debut novel. 

Phoebe Rose confronts adolescence having no idea who she is. Found at age 4 wandering around her Ohio neighborhood, she’s been raised in a series of foster homes. Maintaining a sense of normalcy in the wake of such upheaval remains difficult, so Phoebe dedicates herself to hockey from a young age. The game has been there when so many of the adults in her life have failed her. A few of her foster parents have been kind (especially the Wilsons, who she hoped could adopt her but were denied permission because they were black and she was white), but mostly, Phoebe has suffered throughout her childhood. Her last foster father, Mr. Jenkins, an evangelical with a mean streak, beat her repeatedly and raped her. When Phoebe sets off for a Minnesota college with a dream to play on its women’s hockey team, she vows to keep her physical and emotional scars to herself. After Phoebe makes the team, she quickly learns that she no longer needs to “keep surviving”—she can be a whole person again. Slowly opening up to her fellow players, Phoebe not only confesses the ordeals of her past life, but also discovers a safe space within the confines of the team. As time passes, Phoebe’s teammates help her to find both love and peace within herself. Neal’s decision to explore Phoebe’s life in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards is jarring at first—it takes the reader a while to figure out the timeline. But this strategy turns out to be a brilliant stroke of storytelling—it makes the reader feel as disjointed and uncomfortable as Phoebe does. Neal’s plot covers a lot of ground—Phoebe has been abandoned and mistreated while dealing with a chromosomal disorder and questioning her sexuality. Although this could, quite frankly, feel a bit depressing, Neal’s emotionally gripping narrative anchors Phoebe’s problems and prevents them from drifting too far into weepiness. Though most readers have not shared Phoebe’s trials, all should relate to her struggles—they would do well to absorb her story slowly, savoring both her pain and exultant promise.

A triumphant tale of surviving abuse, embracing hockey, and finding love.

Publisher: Melancholy Donkey Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2016


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