The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach

Sunday, November 04, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature: Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach

We entered a large white office with pictures of nature above motivational slogans like "Life is a journey, not a destination" and "Opportunity will arise when you rise the wall of change" hanging from the wall.  Metal chairs formed a circle in the center of the room.  People I did not know, except for Micah, looked up at us and nodded when we entered the room.  We were late.  The counselor or shrink, whatever he was, invited us to sit down.  His dreads flopped about when he turned his head and indicated a chair.  I sat below a picture of a sunset.  Its caption read:  "Today is the first day of the rest of your life.  Make it happen!"

The session began with the counselor leading everyone in a kind of prayer.  "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

It was weird.  I didn't know they had sent Micah to a religious thing.  My family didn't go to church, like Michelle's.  Mom was raised Catholic, so we got dressed up and went to Mass on Easter Sunday, when we'd hear sermons that were mostly the same year to year, something about death and Jesus. (pp. 7-8)

For most of the past eight years, I have worked, both as "direct care" and as an educational instructor/testing coordinator with troubled teens.  I have heard stories that would break the hearts of most, stories of confused young men and women who struggled to deal with their emotional and behavioral states.  Stories of incest survival and how difficult it was for one 17 year-old to be in the same room with any male even years after it happened.  Several turned to drugs, not just the "soft" stuff like alcohol or marijuana (soft being of course, a relative term), but to meth, heroin, X, benzine, salts, incense, and so forth.  I have had to calm some down as they went through withdrawal, feeling the shakes, worried that they had lost their one dependable security blanket in the world.  I knew of pent-up frustrations, of attempts to run away, to go find another of the opposite (and sometimes same) sex and to just fuck out their fears and desires.  Not all of them wanted help.  Not all of them, in fact I would say less than half, truly wanted help.  They were powerless before their addictions and they did not have the serenity in their lives yet to confront that fundamental weakness and to ready themselves to make an inventory of their lives.

Carrie Arcos' debut novel, Out of Reach, speaks of one of those "lost" souls, of a kid, Micah, from a "good family, who became hooked on meth.  It is too easy to conceive of a tale of someone succumbing to drug/alcohol addiction and then somehow "turning it around."  It would be a "feel good" sort of story, wouldn't it, to have the lost sheep returned to the fold, the family stronger than ever?  Unfortunately, the reality is much sadder than that.  If one is lucky, it might take 2-3 trips to rehab in order to get just enough serenity in one's life to begin recovery.  Sometimes it takes a few spells in jail or a recovery (or two) from an overdose to shock the senses enough.  Sometimes.  Other times, the disease gets the sufferer.  Families are devastated by the betrayals associated with "the habit," the lies, the (self) deceptions, the thefts, the accusations that rend families into shreds.  This is an ugly, sordid part of drug abuse/recovery that often is not presented in fiction, but in Out of Reach, Arcos attempts to shine a light on this, perhaps with a goal of helping families who are suffering through similar matters to understand just a bit more what the addict faces.

Out of Reach is told through the PoV of Micah's one-year younger sister, Rachel.  She is almost everything that he is not:  she is very smart and popular with most of her high school's social groups.  She is the "good" girl whose own frustrations (the breakup with her boyfriend and his spiteful description of her on Facebook, the peer pressure to fit in on other matters while balancing her reputation, etc.) crop up during the course of the novel.  She is the voice of those who just do not understand what drives others to use.  Arcos does an excellent job throughout the novel showing Rachel's strengths and limitations as the caring but (at first) misunderstanding younger sister who is searching for her brother after he runs away after a conflict with their dad soon after his release from a six-week residential rehab program.

The moral center of the novel is of course the absent Micah himself.  In flashbacks as Rachel and a friend of his, Tyler, search the beaches and hangouts of suburban southern California towns, we see how Micah is a sort of vaguely-present guardian angel for Rachel, a fact which she only belated comes to realize.  He is a talented musician whose turn to meth is as much about "fitting in" as it is about dropping out of a society that valued him only for the music he could create.  Yet his absence dominates the tale, as he is the enigma that Rachel (and readers) tries to crack.  As she and Tyler spend a fateful night searching for word of him among people Tyler knows (and those who know those other associates), a shadowy world begins to be revealed:  a place of handshake deals, of continual half-truths and deceptions towards those not a part of the group, of petty thefts and fights.  Yet there is also touching bonding moments, of sad nods and reminisces about music made and stories shared.  Arcos' narrative is at its strongest when Rachel recounts these encounters and how they reflect sides of her brother that she had blinded herself to as they grew up.

There are a few weak spots in the narrative, however.  Naive as Rachel is meant to be, there are still moments where her lack of comprehension feels a bit too forced, as though it strains credibility to believe that she is that sheltered from the world around here.  Less avoidable is the sense that by having a popular, middle-class female high school student as the main PoV, Arcos cannot explore some of the other facets of juvenile drug culture in detail because of the necessary focus being on the familial bonds between Micah and Rachel.  There were times that I would have loved to have heard more about certain minor characters' lives, in part because Arcos does seem to have done her research (or better, have worked with these types of youth) in regards to the social dynamics behind drug usage and addiction.

If I were still working in residential drug rehab, I would have already given a copy of Out of Reach to some of my students for their own evaluations of its message and veracity.  I suspect that most of them would take to it as the female rehab patients did with Ellen Hopkins' novels that cover a similar theme.  As someone who has worked with those who ultimately just were not ready to be "found" or to begin a true recovery, the descriptions and statements within Out of Reach ring true.  Compared to the other 2012 National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature, it is easily one of the two best in terms of prose, characterization, and thematic exploration and with one possible exception, it might be the one that young teens would enjoy most out of the five finalists.

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