by Frances O'Roark Dowell
2011 | 211 pages | Young Adult
Janie Gorman, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of Frances O'Roark Dowell's first YA novel, Ten Miles Past Normal, begins the book by boarding the school bus with fresh goat poop on her shoe. Until recently, she's been quite happy with her family's decision to live on a farm - in fact, back when she was an exuberant and naive nine-year-old, she suggested the move and enthusiastically embraced every aspect of farm life. Now that she's in high school, though, her classmates have started to notice her strangeness, and Janie is tired of being an outsider. It doesn't help, either, that her mother writes a popular blog which often includes more family information than Janie would like to share, and that Janie has to eat lunch without her best friend Sarah, the only friend she has at school. All Janie wants to be is normal, but with the help of a colorful collection of supporting characters - mainly an elderly civil rights activist, a boy named Monster, Verbena the tattooed girl and Sarah's older sister, Emma - she slowly starts to see the merits of being offbeat and quirky.
I was so excited when I learned that Frances O'Roark Dowell was writing a YA novel, and I was not at all disappointed! While I enjoyed The Secret Language of Girls and The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, her pair of novels about middle school friendship, I loved Ten Miles Past Normal from beginning to end and could not put it down. Janie is an original character, with lots of personality and concerns commonly shared by fourteen-year-old girls. Her observations about her family's lifestyle are humorous and sarcastic, but somehow also loving and touching. Her desire to fit in is a common theme in many, many books for young teens, but the world of this book is unique. Janie has a memorable narrative voice, and her interests - playing bass in a jam band, telling her troubles to goats, and taking an elective class called Great Girls and Women of American History - are much different from those of other girls in teen fiction. She is a true non-conformist, and teens who live - and thrive - on the edges of high school society will embrace her and adore her as I did.
The writing in this book really is impeccable, and often it's also laugh out loud funny. From the stoner guys on Janie's school bus who refer to poop as "fecund matter" to the lovey dovey couple between whom Janie is forced to sit in art class, Dowell has painted a picture of a lively, contemporary high school filled with diverse and interesting kids. Janie's love for her family, and her tenderness toward her sister, Avery, also come across quite clearly, even when Janie seems most annoyed with them.
There were many, many quotable passages in this book. Here are just a few of my favorites:
I had no idea what I was talking about. My farm experience consisted of one field trip and approximately two hundred picture books about Old MacDonald and Chicken Little and cows that typed. (p.7)
Being in a band is one of those notions that sort of seizes you. It's like when you're a kid and decide to put on a play or have a carnival in your backyard. You spend forty-eight to seventy-two crazed hours devoting your every waking minute to making it happen, and then, poof, all of a sudden you run out of steam and your big idea dies a quiet death while you sit in front of the TV watching ancient Saved by the Bell episodes. (p.94)
I recommend this book to girls who love contemporary fiction, and especially to those struggling to discover their own definition of normal.
I borrowed Ten Miles Past Normal from my local public library.