Monday, November 13, 2017

A Heartrending Tale of Family, Poverty, and Persistence: Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer

Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer | Goodreads
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release: November 14, 2017
Source: Book Expo
ISBN: 9780763684426
Fishkill Carmel fends for herself, with her fists if need be — until a thwarted lunch theft introduces her to strange, sunny Duck-Duck and a chance for a new start.

Born in the backseat of a moving car, Carmel Fishkill was unceremoniously pushed into a world that refuses to offer her security, stability, love. At age thirteen, she begins to fight back. Carmel Fishkill becomes Fishkill Carmel, who deflects her tormenters with a strong left hook and conceals her secrets from teachers and social workers. But Fishkill’s fierce defenses falter when she meets eccentric optimist Duck-Duck Farina, and soon they, along with Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, form a tentative family, even as Fishkill struggles to understand her place in it. This fragile new beginning is threatened by the reappearance of Fishkill’s unstable mother — and by unfathomable tragedy. Poet Ruth Lehrer’s young adult debut is a stunning, revelatory look at what defines and sustains “family.” And, just as it does for Fishkill, meeting Duck-Duck Farina and her mother will leave readers forever changed.
You know the kind of book that makes you feel like the weary weight of the world is resting on your chest, threatening to suffocate you—or at least send you into a spiral of tears? The kind that leaves you feeling shattered yet somehow comforted? The kind that reminds you why hope is a necessity, but not a foolish one?

Being Fishkill is that kind of book, and it’s one of the best. In her YA debut, Ruth Lehrer tackles the topics of poverty, family, bullying, abuse, and so much more, weaving several threads into one spellbinding, intense, heartrending, harrowing story. 

What gives Being Fishkill its emotional weight is its utter relentlessness. From the beginning of the book, which introduces us to 12-year-old Carmel Fishkill (or, as she prefers to be called, Fishkill Carmel), readers barely get a break to breathe. Whether we’re learning about the protagonist’s abusive (now-dead) grandfather, unraveling the story behind why her neglectful mother abandoned her, hearing about her family’s economic struggles, or watching her navigate painful social situations at school, the story never ceases to provide truly heartbreaking revelations and plot developments. I can barely pinpoint a traditional climax in this novel, as the trials seem incessant, each more difficult than the last. As a result, readers become immediately invested in Fishkill’s story, sometimes unable to stop reading and sometimes unable to keep reading. To top it all off, the fact that Fishkill faces such a series of challenges at such a young age (the story takes place when she’s 12 and 13) adds further emotional charge to the story. (I can’t remember the last YA novel I read with a 12-to-13-year-old main character, but if Being Fishkill is any indication, I want more.)

But as often as Being Fishkill threatens to bring readers to tears, it promises to put a smile on their faces almost as frequently. I absolutely loved watching Fishkill form an awkward-yet-loving makeshift family with Duck-Duck and Molly, and I loved seeing her grapple with the bittersweet reality that, for the first time in her life, she has people actively involved in her well-being. (Seeing Fishkill react with wonderment when Molly advocates for her at school or feeds her healthy food certainly reminded me to appreciate my own family.)

While I adored Fishkill’s relationship with Molly, a top-tier fictional mother on par with the likes of Molly Weasley, what fascinated me most was Fishkill’s relationship with Duck-Duck, an aspiring lawyer who’s always ready to solve logic puzzles and sue her adversaries. From the moment they meet, their relationship is an electrically-charged friendship-and-somewhat/maybe/sort of-first-love—whether they’re making blood vows, navigating damaged trust when Duck-Duck falls in with the school’s cruel popular crowd, or exploring their sexuality (maybe even without realizing that’s what they're doing) by sharing a first kiss. The latter part of their relationship constitutes only a minor part of the plot, since the characters involved are only 12 and 13, but if you’re looking for YA and middle grade stories with characters who maybe aren’t straight, I’d highly recommend Being Fishkill. (On a related note, heads-up that this story features some homophobic slurs, so be prepared if that sort of thing bothers you.)

And through it all, we get to see the world through the eyes of Fishkill Carmel, one of the toughest, most vibrant, most endearing characters I’ve ever encountered. As the novel’s title implies, this story is ultimately a tale about being Fishkill: in the past, in the present, and in the future. Perhaps my favorite part of this novel is simply the protagonist herself—and the phenomenal, vivid way she tells her story and compels readers to care.

Being Fishkill is a stunning combination of so many elements I want to see more of in YA—characters with economic struggles, younger characters, explorations of family dynamics, and so much more. It tackles an array of issues but gives proper attention and care to each one, creating a multifaceted emotional roller coaster of a story. This story will make you cry and it will make you laugh—and most of all, it will make you fiercely care about its characters. Being Fishkill is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I echo the promise in the last sentence of this book’s blurb; read this story, and you will, undeniably, be changed.  

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