Top positive review
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A Jolting and Compelling Account
on March 17, 2006
The book, Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, tells the story of 15-year-old Jan, whose serially marrying mom has latched onto a real jerk of a man. She finally tells her mom to make the choice: Him or me. And when the mother chooses the guy, Jan goes from heating soup to grabbing her backpack and walking out the door.
She manages to find a shelter, where she stays for several weeks. This is not a sugar-coated story. This is a story of other residents threatening her with knives. Racial tensions. The very young girl who slips away and later is spied at a Port Authority men's room, clearly prostituting herself. Jan bonds with some girls who disappear from her life. It's not a great place to be.
Her next step is a group home, which is slightly better. Except by now, Jan has discovered night clubs and cocaine and cigarettes and booze.
One element to the story that strikes me as so interesting, having never been a homeless teenager on the streets of New York, is how Erlbaum kept her act together. With very little structure in her home, when she had a home, and then living in a shelter, Erlbaum managed to go to high school. She maintained school friends. She was in the school play. She got into college. She eventually had a somewhat longterm and loving relationship with a guy.
But the lifestyle extracted a toll. She had sex with boys she didn't like, much less love. She had drug problems. Her friends were unsupportive. She lied, and she stole.
At times, the book feels like a cautionary tale, a relatively modern-day and truthful Go Ask Alice.
Other times, the book feels like an exploration of dumb luck. You steal from work, but skip going the day they make arrests? You leave home, become "halfway homeless," but manage to score a leading role in the school play and get into college? You leave your friends, and by minutes you miss the guy having the mishap that leaves him in a coma?
Sometimes the book seems to rise above the specific matter of Erlbaum, New York City and homeless youths. I personally felt the book echo in my soul. The issues of sexuality, of confusion, of friendships, parent-child relationships, of high school reputations and repercussions could have been my issues in the suburban Midwest in the same era.
I kept having this sense of deep memories being shaken loose. I used to get fed up, wanted to run away, get out, go to New York and try things on my own. In Girlbomb, I see what I would have been up against.
I didn't know whether I would have been friends with young Janice, or been terribly afraid of her.
She wasn't always the sweetest and nicest girl, the true-blue friend or the ideal daughter. It's an honest book, one that neither apologizes nor brags about the facts.
Let's not forget this: When we read a book where the subject is so compelling, it's very easy to overlook the writing. When we talk about this book, we tend to discuss the story, the social implications, the woman who is now Janice Erlbaum.
We rarely talk about the actual prose. And to me, this is a sign that the writing is perfection. The writing doesn't stand in the way of Erlbaum's story, doesn't lend a false air or a sense of melodrama. It's vivid, concise, humorous, conversational. It's not showy or overwrought.
This is a book I highly recommend. If you have teen-age daughters, you might read it and consider whether they ought to read it, too.
I'm not just saying this because she's my friend. This is truly one of the best memoirs I've ever read.