cover image When She Was Good

When She Was Good

Norma Fox Mazer. Arthur A. Levine Books, $16.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-590-13506-1

From the onset of this heart-wrenching novel, it is evident that Mazer (After the Rain) thoroughly understands and empathizes with her impoverished narrator, Em, the younger Thurkill daughter. Em eloquently expresses her belief in an elusive happiness: ""I sensed this phantom thing, happiness, as something real--like a fabulous painting or statue that existed in the world, hidden from me now, but only waiting for me to come upon it,"" while taking blows from her older sister, Pamela, whose sullenness explodes into fits of rage and violence. When Pamela and Em are forced to flee from their run-down trailer, they move to the city where life remains grim for 14-year-old Em. She has trouble holding onto a job while caring for her sister, and continues to be ""crazy"" Pamela's target for attack. Four years later, Em is shocked when Pamela dies unexpectedly (""I didn't believe Pamela would ever die. She was too big, too mad, too furious for anything so shabby and easy as death""), and gingerly takes her first steps towards liberation. The author poetically evokes a poignant, honest image of rebirth and self-reliance. Em edges toward friendship with younger children and a woman named Louise, working up the courage just to smile or say hello; begins a garden in a vacant lot, hauling heavy jugs of water and weeding it daily; and after an exhaustive search, finds a job with a caring and gentle boss. Readers who wince at the heroine's abuse and rejection will find solace in her slow-but-steady emergence into a kinder world. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)