The Second Life of Abigal Walker. by Frances O'Roark Dowell. August 28, 2012. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 240 pages. ISBN: 9781442405936
Abigail Walker is in middle school, and her best friend has moved away. This has left her wide open as a target for bullies like Kristen Gorzca and other “medium popular” girls in her class. Kristen constantly teases Abby about her weight, a topic that also frequently comes up with her parents at home. When she stands up to the bullies, it seems like Abby is destined for loneliness, but instead, she begins making friends - first with the two Indian-American boys with whom she eats lunch, and then with a boy named Anders, whose father, Matt, is dealing with the psychological fallout of serving in Iraq. Abby and her new friends bond over Matt’s interest in learning about Lewis and Clark. The story occasionally shifts to the point of view of a mysterious fox who has a connection to Matt’s experience in Iraq. Through her experience helping Matt, Abby learns to feel alive again, despite how her tormentors try to suffocate her with their cruelty.
I always develop a real affection for Frances O’Roarke Dowell’s characters, and Abby is no exception to this rule. I loved her instantly, because she is so heartbreakingly real. Like so many middle school girls, she lives on the margins, just trying to make it through each day without hurting her mom or subjecting herself to more pain. Dowell writes such lovely descriptions of Abby’s loneliness that the reader has no choice but to feel empathy for her. When it comes to authentic contemporary realistic fiction about middle school, no author has a better sense of what is true and interesting than Frances O’Roarke Dowell.
The problem with this book, though, is that it occasionally deviates from reality.
The sections of the story from the fox’s point of view - including the first chapter of the novel - are beautifully written, but they feel like they belong to another book. I could never quite figure out how the fox linked Abby to Anders, or how a fox who had witnessed Matt’s experiences in Iraq ended up in the U.S. I don’t necessarily think I wanted those things to be explained, because that might have bogged down an economical, poetic text with a lot of information, but I do wonder why the fox’s part of the story wasn’t removed during editing. I also questioned why there was also a dog in the story in addition to the fox. It seemed to me that the dog’s role could easily have been played by the fox as well.
Despite its problems, I really do recommend The Second Life of Abigail Walker, especially for middle school girls. Dowell understands tween friendship better than any author whose work I have ever read, and Abby’s story does have a satisfying ending, even if the rest of the threads don’t quite tie up. For those rare kids who ask for magical realism stories, this could be a perfect match, even if the fantasy fans and realistic fiction readers are a bit put off.
I borrowed The Second Life of Abigail Walker from my local public library.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.