Until recently, 15-year-old Joy had lived her entire life in a small trailer with her mother. She mostly stayed in her room to avoid unwanted attention from her mother’s friends and various live-in boyfriends—hiding didn’t always work, but it was her best option—only coming out at night or when her mother was at work in order to eat, use the bathroom, just to breathe. As her mother rarely let her outside, she’d never been to school, though the movie Matilda inspired her to enroll in her district’s homeschooling program.
Jolene Perry’s Stronger Than You Know begins three months after her mother is arrested, three months after she has been taken in by her aunt and uncle, and three months into what will be a long, difficult recovery:
I read somewhere that happiness is fleeting, but joy sticks with you, holds on to you, and fills you up. The fact that my name is Joy is sort of a lesson in irony.
I sit here because I’m still broken. I’ll probably always sit in offices like this, because I’ll probably always be broken.
For a story about a girl whose first 15 years were full of neglect, abuse and experiences that have left her scarred, inside and out, it’s a surprisingly warm, life-affirming and ultimately comforting read. (Actually, to be fair, that only stands if you don’t read the Acknowledgements.)
It’s an issue book, but it’s not an Issue Book. It follows Joy’s progress, chronicles her baby steps forward and her big steps back. We watch her learn to trust people, to interact with her peers, to not flinch every time a man enters the room, to find her voice. While the entire arc of the book focuses on her journey—the nitty-gritty of her panic attacks and nightmares, details about her therapy, etc.—at no time do the issues overshadow the characters.
Her aunt and uncle. They treat her like a second daughter, they understand that it’s going to be a long, difficult road to recovery, confidence, trust and normalcy, and they never treat her with condescension or frustration. Are they kind of unbelievably perfect? Possibly. But she’s been through so much that it’s nice to see her surrounded by people who are willing and eager to be her protectors and advocates. (Also, her clashes with her male cousin feel realistic and help to balance out the perfection that is Aunt Nicole and Uncle Rob.)
The romance. This is not a story in which the trauma survivor is Healed By Love. The romance is secondary to Joy learning to trust another person, and also a way of showing that despite her past experience, sexual contact can be a consensual, happy thing. (If anyone is unbelievably perfect in this book, it’s her love interest, but he’s so sweet that I let it go.)
The abuse. Perry portrays the horror of what happened to Joy without being exploitative. It works partly because of the order in which she doles out the information—we get to know Joy, we see the aftermath and the beginning of the recovery before we know any details—and partly because the focus is so much more on Joy’s mental and emotional state than on the physical details. Despite the huge differences in the books—tone, plot, voice—as I read, I thought again and again of Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl: Stronger Than You Know allowed me, for the first time, to imagine a happier ending for Alice.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.