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HELEN IN TROUBLE

A beautifully written, compassionate coming-of-age tale with subtle mythic overtones.

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A 16-year-old girl’s unexpected pregnancy leads her on a hero’s journey in this 1963-set debut historical novel.

Waking up in a university library with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Quentin Caffrey, after a night of drunken, frat-house partying, prep schooler Helen Bird is panicked, and not just because she missed her chaperone’s curfew. The couple’s unspoken agreement, formed in “their foggy world of wordless decisions,” has been to use coitus interruptus as their only form of birth control, but this time, Helen can’t find the sticky evidence. She says nothing to Quentin. Later, in his dorm room, he contemplates writing her a letter about his mystical, profound “epiphany” that justified not pulling out (it “would be wrong, even evil, a turning away from the sublime”). But his next missive is silent on the subject. As for Helen, she returns home to Arlington, Virginia, and her junior year at St. Joan’s. She figures out (more or less) how to use her mother’s douche bag and hopes for the best but never considers talking to her parent, who also grew up in a family where many important things were unsayable. Her father, too, knows how to bite his tongue, as when forced to write pro–strip mining press releases for his boss, a United States senator. Though she tries to resume her life of propriety, Helen must soon face up to the truth: She’s pregnant, and only an abortion can save her future. It requires the girl to find an inner determination she didn’t know she had, reach out to a friend, trust strangers, and ask for help. Both in the process and its aftermath, these resources come through for her, allowing Helen to make rich connections with feminine strength and caring, finally breaking her and her family’s walls of silence.

In her novel, Sibbison writes thoughtfully about her hero’s dilemma and its cultural, familial, and personal context. For example, Quentin doesn’t buy condoms because that “would make their sex premeditated and Helen a ‘pig.’ No decent, unmarried girl would plan to have intercourse.” Similarly, Helen’s mother has a poignant backstory that makes sense of her reticence: “It was obvious that she was to know nothing. Questions would bring only displeasure, which Rosemary could not risk.” Moral characterization is complex, as when delineating the Birds’ support of the civil rights movement; their sympathy “was real but almost entirely abstract.” Another character, Ilse Gaulden, a young woman who helps arrange abortions, became involved after realizing that civil rights workers were getting pregnant in the name of free love. Since something should be done, Ilse did it. The author does a fine job of tying Helen’s everyday life, during which she must hide every sign of her pregnancy, to the compelling archetypal elements in her experience. The correspondence is especially powerful when—emotionally and literally—the girl must make a tenebrous voyage to Ilse’s rough, ill-lit neighborhood before reaching her destination’s unexpected warmth.

A beautifully written, compassionate coming-of-age tale with subtle mythic overtones.

Pub Date: July 18, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-73665-063-9

Page Count: 242

Publisher: Booksmyth Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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IF ONLY I HAD TOLD HER

A heavy read about the harsh realities of tragedy and their effects on those left behind.

In this companion novel to 2013’s If He Had Been With Me, three characters tell their sides of the story.

Finn’s narrative starts three days before his death. He explores the progress of his unrequited love for best friend Autumn up until the day he finally expresses his feelings. Finn’s story ends with his tragic death, which leaves his close friends devastated, unmoored, and uncertain how to go on. Jack’s section follows, offering a heartbreaking look at what it’s like to live with grief. Jack works to overcome the anger he feels toward Sylvie, the girlfriend Finn was breaking up with when he died, and Autumn, the girl he was preparing to build his life around (but whom Jack believed wasn’t good enough for Finn). But when Jack sees how Autumn’s grief matches his own, it changes their understanding of one another. Autumn’s chapters trace her life without Finn as readers follow her struggles with mental health and balancing love and loss. Those who have read the earlier book will better connect with and feel for these characters, particularly since they’ll have a more well-rounded impression of Finn. The pain and anger is well written, and the novel highlights the most troublesome aspects of young adulthood: overconfidence sprinkled with heavy insecurities, fear-fueled decisions, bad communication, and brash judgments. Characters are cued white.

A heavy read about the harsh realities of tragedy and their effects on those left behind. (author’s note, content warning) (Fiction. 14-18)

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781728276229

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2024

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IF HE HAD BEEN WITH ME

There’s not much plot here, but readers will relish the opportunity to climb inside Autumn’s head.

The finely drawn characters capture readers’ attention in this debut.

Autumn and Phineas, nicknamed Finny, were born a week apart; their mothers are still best friends. Growing up, Autumn and Finny were like peas in a pod despite their differences: Autumn is “quirky and odd,” while Finny is “sweet and shy and everyone like[s] him.” But in eighth grade, Autumn and Finny stop being friends due to an unexpected kiss. They drift apart and find new friends, but their friendship keeps asserting itself at parties, shared holiday gatherings and random encounters. In the summer after graduation, Autumn and Finny reconnect and are finally ready to be more than friends. But on August 8, everything changes, and Autumn has to rely on all her strength to move on. Autumn’s coming-of-age is sensitively chronicled, with a wide range of experiences and events shaping her character. Even secondary characters are well-rounded, with their own histories and motivations.

There’s not much plot here, but readers will relish the opportunity to climb inside Autumn’s head.   (Fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: April 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4022-7782-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Review Posted Online: Feb. 12, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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