There are books that pump your adrenaline for you and there are books, like Small Damages by Beth Kephart, that seep deep into your being, settle there, making their mark on your emotions, your perceptions about other cultures, and your own world view. Kephart has a skill unlike other young adult authors in that she never sees her younger readers as incapable of understanding or of deep emotion. She trusts them to follow her characters in their unusual circumstances and settings and garner a deeper understanding of what it means to mature from a child into an adult and the responsibilities that weigh on them even now when they are so young in this modern world.
Kenzie Spitzer is an 18-year-old pregnant girl who struggles with the loss of her father and the silence of her mother every day, and she keeps secrets from her friends, her family, and herself. Kevin Sullivan, the boyfriend, is on his way to Yale in the fall, and she had planned to attend Newhouse film school after a summer on the New Jersey shore in a rented house with her boyfriend and friends. To say the least, her life is turned upside down by the pregnancy news, but what’s worse is the decision to have the child and give it up for adoption is taken out of her hands when her mother makes arrangements for her to go to Los Nietos (the granchildren) ranch in Spain where she will be cared for by her mother’s friends Miguel and Estela until the baby is born.
“We scatter the herd, break the bulls out of the shade until they are near, running beside us — fast in a straight line, awkward on the turns, annoyed.” (Page 14 ARC)
Like the scattering of the bulls when she arrives, Kenzie’s life has been derailed and those of her friends and of Kevin are moving parallel to her and from her point of view cased in blissful ignorance as her life is the only one changed. She even ruminates on how even though a child conceived is the doing of man and woman, it is the woman’s life that is changes irrevocably. Kenzie’s thoughts are very similar to teenage girls, vacillating between the past and what the future could have been — analyzing each moment over and over. Unlike other novels on this topic, Kephart’s kind hand guides the narration without judgment allowing the character to reveal her own maternal love for the child and her confusion without the harsh lens of blame and resentment.
“I stay where I am, halfway in, halfway out, the moon and the stars bright behind me.” (Page 172 ARC)
Forced into a decision that is not her own — but is in a roundabout way a compromise with her mother — Kenzie is left adrift in a foreign land with people she doesn’t know or understand, wondering through silences and asking endless questions that are unanswered more often than not. She meets Esteban with whom a connection is born as they share a tragic parental past, even though for a long while all Kenzie wants is to be someone else, somewhere else. Like the birds in Seville and at Los Nietos, they are there guiding Kenzie, showing her the color as Kevin had done when her father died. She is alive, and they remind her. There is one passage in the novel in which Esteban talks of how one particular bird always comes, but that he brings the others with him — reminiscent of The Conference of the Birds (my review) and the faith they need to find what they seek.
“‘Only to the earth do I tell my troubles,’ Arcadio sings softly, ‘for nowhere in the world do I find anyone to trust.’
‘If my heart had windowpanes of glass,’ Bruno sings the next line, ‘you’d look inside and see it crying drops of blood.’
‘These Gypsies, they are the famous,’ Miguel says. ‘They are starting very young; they played for Lorca. They had duende. Have duende. Sí?'” (Page 165-6 ARC)
Small Damages by Beth Kephart is about the courage we must find within ourselves to face the past, our tragedies and losses, and our fears about the future. Kenzie is a young woman on the verge of her new life when it is turned upside down, and while the decision to go to Spain is not her own, she finds the courage to make her own decisions for herself, her baby, and her future. Through the chords and melodies of gypsy music, Kenzie must peel the tough, bumpy rubber skin of the orange in her journey through Spain to reveal the prized juice and supple pulp beneath the skin. While damages may seem large and insurmountable when they are first scored through our hearts and skin, they heal and become the small scars that make us who we are and how we learn to be better than we were.
About the Author:
Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.
Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog and my interview with her.
My other Beth Kephart reviews:
Have you seen this book trailer?