Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne (Plume; 336 pages; $16).
A child’s first providers and protectors are his or her parents. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In her powerful, provocative, and semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hand Me Down, Melanie Thorne chronicles the epic struggle of a teenage girl suffering from neglect and abuse, determined to protect her sister at any cost. Hand Me Down feels so real that it reads like a memoir. Thorne’s story left me indignant and emotionally spent, which is proof of the author’s skilled writing and adept characterizations.
Sometimes family can let us down and hurt us more than anyone else can. The people who are supposed to be taking care of 14-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Reid and her younger sister, Jaime, have failed miserably. The girls’ parents are divorced. Their father, who used to beat their mother, is a drunk.
Their mother, Linda, has been a refuge for her daughters, loving them and supporting them and providing a safe haven. As Liz tells us in her mature and sage voice, Linda “saved us from bad dreams, left the light on in our room, let us snuggle into her bed. She rescued us from the neighbors’ fighting, sang songs loud enough to drown out the woman across the landing screaming with her head out the window until her husband jerked her back inside.” Linda “protected us from our drunken father, stood her ground in the face of hurled beer cans and TV remotes, steered us through broken dishes on the kitchen floor and shattered windows in the carpet. She carried us past his sleeping body in bloody slippers, pulled us out of range of his raised fists more than once, and her bruises proved her loyalty.” Liz and Jaime “didn’t need anyone else.”
The above passage is just a sample of the abuse described in Hand Me Down. Most, if not all, of the parts are gut-wrenching and very difficult to read, as well they should be.
When Terrance comes in their mother’s life, everything changes. Terrance has a history of criminal behavior, but Linda is not deterred. Linda and Terrance marry and have a son together. Terrance ends up in prison, offering Liz and Jaime a brief reprieve. After serving his sentence, though, Terrance returns—worse than ever. Linda aims to please her husband and casts aside her daughters. Like old garments, the sisters are handed down to relatives, some of whom only continue the cycle of neglect and abuse.
More than anything else, Liz worries for Jaime, especially after the sisters are separated. She has tried to shield Jaime, but she is unable to protect her after they are split.
This upsetting novel is narrated from Liz’s first-person perspective, which elicited a visceral reaction from this reader. This story unsettled and upset me from the very beginning. Everyone who reads Hand Me Down will ache all over for Liz and will feel beaten and hurt just as she is.
Yet, not all of Hand Me Down is morose. Thorne introduces beacons of hope through many characters, most notably Tammy, Liz’s aunt, and Rachel, her best friend. Elements of humor also echo throughout the novel, just as they do in life, no matter how dire the situation.
Liz is only 14, but she seems so much older given what has happened to her. Her voice calls to mind other teen heroines, like Ava Bigtree in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Thorne leaves readers with white knuckles as they wait to see if Liz and Jaime survive and even thrive.
The paperback version of Hand Me Down has a brand new epilogue not included in the hardcover edition. If you enjoy books narrated by strong teen girls, wise beyond their years, then Hand Me Down is a must read. I do warn you, though, you will become so invested in this tale that the adults in the story will infuriate you but the kids will inspire you. This is a survivor’s story perfect for fans of Janet Fitch and Dorothy Allison.