Tuesday, 13 September 2016
Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead
Set in contemporary New York, Goodbye Stranger tells the story, in the first person, of Bridge Barsamien,a 7th grader, car accident survivor and medical marvel. It also occasionally jumps forward several months to another story, in the second person, of an older teen, an unnamed girl who is skipping school in an anxious attempt to avoid the consequences of a terrible mistake.
But first Bridge. Convinced she survived her earlier accident for a reason, Bridge is having a bit of an identity crisis- why is she here? What does she bring to the world? Who is she, really? A bit of an oddball, she has recently started wearing cat ears to school. Best friends Tab and Em think it's a bit odd, but whatever- both have their own things to deal with. Em is now a rising soccer star and the recent owner of some new curves that are starting to get her noticed by older students. Tabs is busy excelling at languages, getting into human rights and civil disobedience and gobbling up a (somewhat outdated, 1970s flavoured) feminist agenda from her worshipped teacher Ms Burman. Bridge is quite confused and put out by the focus and talents of her friends, and find herself drifting to the Stage Crew as an after school activity where she meets Sherm, a kid she lives really close to, goes to school with yet has somehow never actually spoken to.
It's a beautifully written book, with gorgeous, evocative prose that washes over the reader. Though not terrible plot driven, it is incredibly realistic and does an excellent job of showing what it must be like to be 12 or 13 in the modern era. The three central girls are working out who they are and what matters to them, whilst trying to navigate the rough seas of adolescence. The book asks some really interesting questions about identity and what makes a person *them*- can you be the same person now that you were 5 years ago? Will your future self be the same person? Can you be two people at once, one that dud something terrible and regrets it, and simultaneously one that understands and would probably do it again?
A lot of middle grade fiction has the trials and tribulations of friendship at its core. The way that friendships can break apart, evolve or become toxic and damaging. We get to see that via the unnamed second person voice, how friends can change and become people that seem like strangers. Bridge's trio fare better throughout the book. Though they have their ups and their first downs, the girls' friendship seems to weather the storm of the 7th grade.
Though not an issue driven book, Goodbye Stranger still offers the opportunity for valuable conversation around important issues in the lives of modern tweens. There is the perennial issue of friendships being made and broken and how to deal withe the emotional fallout, embarrassing, fraying or broken families and the stresses of school, but we also see the emergence of more modern issues- 'sexting', slut shaming (though neither terms are specifically used) and the way girls in particular are expected to behave, scrutinised and judged. There's a lot to unpack for such a short book- I particularly liked how Em's picture being leaked was presented as quite a complicated thing. She was mortified, rightly or wrongly, but still liked the picture and how she looked in it- something that Bridge is baffled by . Em explains "the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself". It's a big thing to have to think about, surrounded by sub themes of consent, self love and agency.
All in all, it's a wonderful, dual story that points out that age does not always come with wisdom and that older kids make mistakes too, Nobody is infallible. Some friendships will survive and some will go bad. New friends eventually become old friends. Past and future are mysteries. Teachers will always spend their own money to make things that they care about a success. Girls and boys will, however unfairly, be subjected to different treatment.