I start every book believing that I will love it. But every now and then I come across a book that just wasn't for me. When I was contacted by Paige Dearth, the author of Believe Like a Child, I was very moved by her personal story. Ms. Dearth was raped at the age of seven. To cope with the trauma, she made up stories in her mind, which provided a welcome distraction from her troubled home life. Her adult life was filled with several ups and downs, including a failed marriage to a heroin addict. Through it all, she has persevered.
Believe Like a Child is fiction, but many details from Ms. Dearth's own life make it into the book. Like Ms. Dearth, the main character, Alessa, was raped at seven years old by her uncle. Alessa's uncle Danny is the family meal ticket, without him Alessa and her family wouldn't have any money to survive. Alessa's mother doesn't believe her daughter's accusations. Alessa is basically the sacrificial lamb for the family. It doesn't matter how much pain she is in, Alessa has to take one for the family. I was disgusted by that. It would be nice to believe situations like this don't happen, but I'm quite certain that they do. A parent is supposed to protect their child from harm. I just don't understand why some parents don't do that.
As she grows up, Alessa's only respite from her troubled home life is her friendship with Rhonda and her mother Zoe. But when Rhonda dies in a horrific act of violence, Alessa has reached her breaking point, she can no longer cope without someone to confide in. And....her uncle was getting ready to pimp her out to his poker buddies. Up until this point I was Ok with the book. But once Alessa is on her own at age 16, I had some trouble with the book. It's not that I don't believe 16-year-olds can be resourceful and provide for themselves. But everything under the sun is happening to Alessa, and I just couldn't believe all of it. In addition to being raped by her uncle, Alessa was raped by a boyfriend, gang raped more than once, and forced into prostitution. The details of all of this are very graphic. The graphic nature didn't offend me in any way, but I just felt there was too much going on here. In my opinion, if there is too much going on, the overall message can get lost. After 100+ pages, I just couldn't finish this book. It just wasn't for me, but that doesn't mean this book won't appeal to others.
Yes, some of the author's own life influenced this book, but I had to separate the book from the author and look at this as a piece of fiction. The book is told in the third person. I believe the book would have been a much more powerful read had it been written in the first person. The way it's written, we are being told Alessa's story rather than letting Alessa tell it herself. For me, it would have been much more powerful to read a child's perspective on her troubled home life. When the book opens her character is seven years old, but no seven year old would talk they way Alessa does. At times, the language felt very awkward. An abused child that age certainly knows what it feels like to be raped or sodomized, but I find it hard to believe they would actually know to say the specific words "rape" or "sodomy."
When the book opens we are plunged right into the family dynamic. I would have liked to know more about Alessa before her ordeal began. Did she have hopes and dreams before her childhood was shattered? If so what were they? What was her relationship with her siblings like before all the trouble? Was her life always bad? Was her mother always this evil person? Was her uncle always an evil person? Also, Alessa and Rhonda became great friends, but by page 32 Rhonda is dead. I felt a little cheated. More time should have been devoted to developing their friendship. I also had trouble figuring out what year or era this was supposed to be. When Alessa is on her own, she is earning a minimum wage of $3.35, which made me think this was the 70s or 80s. That could be chalked up to her boss being a jerk, and to Alessa being naive about life. I don't really know the answer to that one. But Alessa also has a cell phone so she can keep in contact with Zoe, which made me think this was a more contemporary story.
I applaud Paige Dearth and others like her for not letting an abusive childhood define who they are as adults. It couldn't have been easy for Ms. Dearth to write this, and I admire her for having the courage to do so. The pain that Ms. Dearth felt certainly comes through in Alessa. But when reading or reviewing a book like this, I can't let the author's personal history influence my opinion. I really, really wanted to like this book, but it just wasn't for me.