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I recently read Sisters in Sanity, which is a YA novel that takes place in a sort of boot-camp boarding school for troubled kids. Early on, one of the characters says derisively that Red Rock (the school) doesn't take kids with serious problems—it doesn't want the liability.

I had mixed feelings about Sisters in Sanity, in large part because there wasn't a ton of nuance. In What It Takes to Pull Me Through, though, we get a lot of nuance. Better, it's nonfiction. Better still, it's written by a journalist—that is, somebody without a particular agenda or point; somebody with limited bias. (While writing, the author says on page 319, ...I had to set aside my affection for these folks. I'd feel like a nicer person if I airbrushed all the blemishes from the portraits, but this book wasn't about being nice. It was about letting readers learn from the mistakes that parents and kids make.)

Swift River—the school examined in this book—makes the same choice that the fictional Red Rock does: to take in only students for whom they think they have a chance of making a difference. They're not set up for kids with serious personality disorders or autism or big physical disabilities. And it does seem that they have a chance at helping the kids they do take in—although, as the book goes on, it becomes clear that that may be less because of Swift River and more because...well, because the kids weren't getting the basics before. Not so much bad parenting as some really obvious voids: Take Mary Alice, whose parents agree that she can have a going-away party, tell her there can't be rowdiness or pot...and then go upstairs to bed (15), leaving Mary Alice to her own devices. Or Bianca, who as far as I can tell had received no counselling since her mother's death and no help whatsoever after other traumas. In Tyrone and D.J.'s cases, it seems to be that the system has failed them—I have mad respect for Tyrone's mother, but Tyrone has been written off by his public school (no problem if he's truant, but let's officially keep him in school so that the school doesn't lose money; he's not violent or in trouble with the law, so clearly depression isn't a problem), and D.J. (for the most part) just seems ill-suited for an academic environment where he has to sit still for hours on end.

So it's complicated. On the one hand the author does present it as quite a nurturing environment; on the other hand, there are comments like this: After working in base camp and on campus for three years, he [a gym teacher] had come to believe that when Swift River succeeded, it was simply because kids matured. "But the school can't tell parents it's just a matter of maturation. Otherwise, who is going to pay eighty grand? The parents would feel like they're being ripped off. (289)

For the most part Marcus focuses on the students, but he brings in other players as well—teachers and administrators and therapists. (I will note that—though I might have missed it—I never saw an indication that there was individual therapy, only group therapy, which seems something of an omission.) He touches on, occasionally, the impact that working in such an environment can have: Of Gennarose, an English teacher, he says She'd kept it [anorexia] in check for a while, but in the past couple of weeks she'd had a relapse—partly because she sat in group therapy with Mary Alice and other girls who were fixated on their weight (108). That's very nearly the last we hear of that, though I'm not sure whether that's by the author's choice or because Gennarose put a lock on her own information after that. (That particular tidbit came out of a conversation that Mary Alice forced rather than being something that Gennarose shared freely.) Makes me wonder how Gennarose fared throughout the rest of the year, and also how other adults reacted in that environment.

It's a fourteen-month programme, more or less, after which the students are sent back home to sink or swim—with somewhat predictable results. Although the author describes the outcome (for lack of a better word) of one of the students as a 'shocking twist in [the student]'s life' (306), it is far less shocking for having seen how, and sometimes why, each person was struggling. Despite the book's subtitle, there isn't a shiny, tied-with-a-bow happy ending at the end of the fourteen months; the reality is more complex.

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Book info

PublisherHoughton Mifflin
GanreNon Fiction
Release date 01.01.2005
Pages count338
File size6.7 Mb
eBook formatHardcover, (torrent)En
Book rating4 (90 votes)
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