Ruth Lehrer’s gritty realism is reminiscent of Dorothy Allison, as is her exploration of poverty, abuse, neglect, miraculously strong girls, and the failure and promise of family. But, Lehrer’s pace and unrelentingly complicated descriptions of young teen subjectivity set Bring Fishkill firmly within the field of YA literature.
*A few spoilers but nothing major.
Being Fishkill, by Ruth Lehrer, is the story of Carmel Fishkill, a thirteen-year old girl growing-up in poverty. Carmel is mistreated by both family and society. She spends the first twelve-years of her life in a rundown home with a violent grandfather and incapable mother. When her grandfather dies and her mother disappears, Carmel reinvents herself in order to survive.
Lehrer writes: “I decided in seventh grade, at the new school, in the new school year, I would own that hard-sounding last name. Fish – cold and scaly. Kill – dangerous, you-don’t-want-to-fuck-with-me dangerous. I would be Fishkill Carmel” (1). Fishkill punches bullies before they punch her and swipes food from other students’ plates, so she doesn’t go hungry. It works. The bullies begin to leave her alone and she isn’t quite as malnourished as when she was Carmel Fishkill.
A few pages into the story, Fishkill meets Duck-Duck, and they will, unbeknownst to either girl, soon become best friends. At first, Duck-Duck is just another girl with a sandwich Fishkill tried to steal, but Fishkill is oddly distracted by Duck-Duck’s scent – “like a vanilla wafer with hot cocoa on the side (3). From the first time she is introduced, Duck-Duck is associated with comfort and safety, with home.
The girls become fast friends and Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, provides Fishkill with the mother-love her own mother can’t. For a bit, it seems like the cycle of pain and poverty just might break. But Lehrer doesn’t give readers an uncomplicated happy ending. In fact, Being Fishkill takes readers on an uncomfortably bumpy ride that is also beautiful and wise, sometimes delving into deep melancholy, but refusing to stay there.
Lehrer presents her characters, even the messiest and meanest among them, with the dignity of depth. This is helped, where it could be hindered, by the first-person narrative. Characters, from Fishkill’s mother to the school bully, are developed thoughtfully throughout the text as Fishkill’s understanding of them thickens.
Even more, Lehrer inserts smart social critique and an astute understanding of poverty throughout her book, which make it a wonderful choice for high school and university classes as well as book clubs. Brilliantly executed with truly original characters and a fast-moving plot, this book is lyrically delivered by a writer who is gifted with the ability to make reading a visceral experience. Being Fishkill lingers like the scent of vanilla wafers with a side of hot cocoa served on broken china. Yes, you should read this.
Learn more about the brilliant Ruth Lehrer.
*The author provided me with a copy of the book for review.