Stuff happens to most people. One thing going wrong, I mean. One family member missing a chance to help. One who cuts you off. One person with her own shit to deal with.
One of those things isn’t enough to send you falling through the cracks.
But all of them together, they accumulate. An abandoned mother here. A missing uncle there. A disappearing father two generations back. A friendship broken by fear or mistrust or addiction. Genes that make you vulnerable to certain problems. Two children who weren’t loved right meeting up when they’re not really adults yet and having two more children who aren’t loved right.
It adds up. It all adds up.
Gem & Dixie, by Sara Zarr
Gem has taken care of her younger sister, Dixie, for as long as she can remember. Their dad took off years and years ago, and beyond keeping a roof over their heads, their mom has never been particularly reliable. So it was Gem who kept Dixie fed, who got her up and ready for school, who chased boredom away, soothed fears, eased pain.

Now they’re both in high school, and while Gem is flailing more and more, Dixie appears to be thriving. As far as Gem can tell, Dixie not only doesn’t need Gem any more, she doesn’t even really want her around. So when an opportunity appears—a chance to ease the monotonous pressure and the unfair responsibility and the experience of always putting herself last, last, last—Gem thinks long and hard about walking away from her sister, her mother, and the life she’s always known.

I have read a lot of books about sisters. And I have read a lot of books by Sara Zarr. Gem & Dixie might be the best one I’ve read on either front.

She captures the push-pull dynamic of sisterhood—the way that, over the course of milliseconds, a pair of sisters can go from fighting each other to standing back-to-back, fighting everyone else. The way that a relationship between sisters can have longstanding undercurrents of jealousy and competitiveness and resentment, while also being the kind of fierce bond that, when threatened, prompts fiery phoenix-level I WILL DESTROY YOU burning protective rage. Zarr captures all of that in this book, but she also captures Gem and Dixie as individuals who are growing up and growing apart, who have different dreams and different needs, who are starting to understand that they have different ways of interacting with and navigating their world.

And beyond a sister story, beyond a coming of age story, it’s a family story. It’s about the damage that gets passed on from generation to generation—the excerpt at the top is a long one, but it’s such a beautiful encapsulation of that theme and of Gem’s voice and of the tone of the book in general that I had to include the whole thing—and it’s about the strength and resolve and the HELP that it requires to climb out of a hole that’s been decades in the making. It’s about adults who can’t get their own selves together, let alone care for children, and it’s about adults who are pretty together, who actively try to help, but still miss the mark.

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It asks questions about what it means to be in danger, and shows that a precipice doesn’t always have a flashing neon arrow pointed at it. How growing up on a tightrope doesn’t usually look like a Law & Order episode, but that it’s still dangerous, still scary, still has repercussions. It’s about acknowledging the unfairness of all of it, and about the importance of understanding the building blocks that created the situation—you can’t control or change the past, but understanding it helps you make choices to more actively frame your own future—and then moving on with the business of surviving.

It’s a beautiful book. It’s written with grace and care and love. And it’s one I know I’m going to return to again and again and again.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.