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Neff’s debut novel tackles issues of coming of age, belonging, following your dreams, and redemption, while wrestling with the realities of societal homophobia. Add in the strong feelings and complex social negotiations of teens trying to make their way in a world that seems to already have rejected them, and adults that struggle with being both role models and real people with their own histories and challenges, and the result is a story that is compassionate and emotionally deep, hopeful but realistic.
Grace, returning to her difficult and unaccepting grandfather’s farm, after his death, with her psychologist partner Ellie, combines her dream to restore the farm as a business venture with participation in an experimental program, in which girls will work and live on the farm for the summer instead of being in a traditional juvenile detention center. The four girls who arrive to form this ad hoc family are a classic mix of troubled kids: Jenna, who has run away from foster home after foster home and basically gotten lost in the system; Sarah, drug addict and prostitute who still worries about her friends out on the street; Cassie, a strange and quiet girl who was abused, isolated and forced into a caretaker role at a young age; and Lauren, entitlement- wielding rich girl with a chronic shoplifting problem and a boyfriend waiting on the outside. Grace tries to provide a perfect environment for the girls to learn to believe in themselves, but her trips out to town to visit the farmer’s market and socialize with friends make it clear that the neighbors are neither thrilled with her lesbianism nor with her bringing prison labor into town.
Although three of the girls eventually settle in to the work and the lessons of the farm program, Lauren resists the program entirely, avoiding the hard work of the farm and trying to convince the other girls to help her in sabotaging the program. Grounded in the meanness and homophobia with which she was raised, Lauren decides that outing Grace and Ellie and falsely accusing them of sexual harassment will close the program, so she steals personal things from them and sneaks them out to her family, hoping they will “save” her and destroy the “depraved” women in the process.
The powerful stories of each of the girls and women unfold slowly through the interactions they have with one another, giving a real sense of opening up to the reader and very effectively moving each character beyond their stereotype and connecting each one’s history to their current social dynamic. Each connection is hard-earned, as each character moves from wariness to a certain sort of trust. Neff also gives each of them space for their own first person voice, and we hear their thinking about themselves and how it changes over the course of their time at the farm.
Although this novel is being presented under Penguin’s Young Readers Group, and is in general appropriate for a teen audience, queer teens may not find that much with which to specifically connect in this story – all the lesbian characters are adults, and unlike the girls they never really get to a point of comfort with themselves or their broader community. But for adults who struggle with the challenges of having the basic facts of a non-straight life always being available for others to use as a threat against them, Grace’s story will evoke a strong familiarity and a certain sort of wry sympathy.
by Beth Neff