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Every queer will want to cheer for Lo Flynn. The sixteen-year-old narrator of Lambda Award winning Rhiannon Argo’s second novel Girls I’ve Run Away With (Moonshine Press) is stuck in suburban hell with only her skateboard to guide her. When she finds a beat up skate deck, she’s determined to make it her own. Skating is the thing that will rescue her from her obnoxious sister Violet, her nerd brother Seth, and her negligent mother. While Lo convinces the local skater boys that she’s serious about skating, her sister Violet has some kind of psychotic break, amping up the strangeness in Lo’s home.
There’d be enough of a story packed in here with a badass skater girl and her sister’s mental illness. But a girl at school captures Lo’s attention—the baby-tee wearing, mysterious Savannah Blanco, rumored to have once super glued her eyelashes shut. Readers hungry for the heady feeling of a girl’s first crush won’t be disappointed, except that it takes a long time to get to the place where Lo and Savvy figure out they’re more than friends. There’s a 90s-heavy courtship of dropping acid, building a secret fort in a shed, and listening to a ton of Hole before Savvy one night pulls Lo’s hand to her stomach gently and says, “Do this while I fall asleep.”
Here we have the first of the titular promise—a girl to run away with. But Violet, now touting a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, sneaks into Lo’s room and discovers a romantic note Savvy has written. Lo’s mother threatens to send Lo away to a Christian family in Oregon unless she never sees Savvy again. It’s not long before Lo is being driven north against her wishes.
Savvy promises to rescue Lo, and through a few punks and Violet’s help—Violet has landed herself back in a mental institute and feels guilty for getting Lo in trouble—Lo and Saavy do their best to run away and spring Violet from the psych ward. The novel finds its sweet spot here—stolen cars, shrieking laughter, and an unforgettable cast of misfits to help them along the way. When their adventure comes to a grinding halt, the story keeps going at an enticing clip as Lo gets sent back to the savior family in Orgeon, and Savvy is sent to a boarding school in New York. The romance fades, as Savvy writes letters about parties she goes to and new friends, making Lo envious. But in her new life, Lo finds an art teacher who believes in her, and a foster mother who, while crazy for Jesus, seems to care for Lo as she’s never been cared for before. She settles into a new cast of friends and becomes complacent—a goth boyfriend, church meetings—until a woman at the health food store where Lo works snaps her out of it. Her co-worker quips, “So you’re an ex-lesbian in therapy trying to be a ‘normal heterosexual’ and you got a job in an organic grocery store?”
Lo tries to resist—she’s determined to keep her head and down and graduate—but not before meeting Ramona, a lesbian who lives on her own and woos Lo with a Sleater Kinney and Team Dresch laden mix tape. Savvy gets in touch with Lo and begs her to come to California for the summer, but Lo is unsure. A new romance with Ramona forces Lo to leave her Christian foster family and move in with Ramona, and together they hatch a plan to move to Portland. The book ends on this hopeful note, with Argo promising a sequel of more girls to run away with.
Argo masterfully creates Lo’s whole world—the pop culture, the mood of despair, the giddy innocence of the young. But it takes a good one hundred pages for Lo to find her own as a narrator. The first part of the novel deals heavily with Violet’s psychotic break, when readers will truly be interested in better knowing Lo. Violet becomes an effective linchpin by the height of the novel, but Lo takes a long time to become the centerpiece of the story.
The novel inhabits teenage experience with tremendous perfection—from the mighty importance of phone calls to the ongoing hunt for a good house party. The only drawback would be that all this minute accuracy—whole afternoons and nights that pass in hazy conversation, pot smoke, making out—takes the novel awhile to ramp up. Finally, any Generation Y queer will swoon for the heavily 90s landscape, a time of pay phones, cassette tapes, Courtney Love and Manic Panic. The pain and grit of Lo’s troubled world is a great reminder that, although this story takes place twenty years ago, it’s not all GSAs and Glee for queer youth. The crusade to survive as a teen in the world—a skateboarding, rule breaking, heart hungry teen—is worth fighting for every time.
Girls I’ve Run Away With
By Rhiannon Argo
Paperback, 9780989439602, 263 pp.