January 25, 2007


Runaway. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.95.

     Wendelin Van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series is a well-above-average example of the young-girl-detective genre (and if that’s not really a genre, it should be).  Sammy’s tales are darker than the Nancy Drew stories to which they ultimately trace back, with threats that seem real and some genuinely bad people committing (or trying to commit) some genuinely evil deeds.  But nothing in the series is as gritty as Runaway, which is a spinoff of the Sammy Keyes tales.

     When it was published in 1999, Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy included a scene in which Sammy rescued a homeless 12-year-old girl who was living in a refrigerator box.  Runaway is the story of that girl, Holly – of how she became homeless, how she survived without a place to live, and how she eventually, after much travail, found a family into which to fit.

     To show how dark this story is: that refrigerator carton from which Sammy rescues the girl becomes, in Runaway, the first real home and apparent safe haven that Holly has known in a long time.  There is no Sammy to help Holly here, but she does eventually (and very reluctantly, after a lot of understandable suspicion) find a friend; and it is through that friend that Holly is finally able to live somewhere better than a refrigerator box.

     Although intended for readers ages 10 and up, Runaway will be too intense for many preteens and even some teenagers.  Van Draanen avoids the easy brutality that is all too common in novels about troubled young people – there is no history of sexual abuse or physical violence in Holly’s tale – and for that very reason the story comes alive with a sense of “this could happen to me.”  That’s scary.

     Van Draanen’s readers, of course, are unlikely ever to experience the set of circumstances that bring Holly to homelessness: absent father; loving and well-meaning mother who develops a drug addiction that eventually costs her her home, her daughter and then her life; and a series of disastrous encounters with social-services providers, girls Holly’s own age, and older people who seem to care but really just want Holly out of their lives as quickly as possible.  Still, Holly’s experiences have the ring of plausibility – Van Draanen is a meticulous researcher – and this story may well shock readers into realizing just how close they are to a situation like Holly’s, even if they will never experience the real thing.

     It should be pointed out that Van Draanen’s main plot device – Holly determinedly keeps a journal of everything, no matter what happens to her, and her entries make up the book’s narrative – is a little too facile, straining the book’s hard-won credibility.  Still, the journal approach, even if unrealistic, is highly involving, and young readers who are drawn into Holly’s world will find that her writings make her a flesh-and-blood character with every bit as much solidity as Sammy Keyes has ever possessed.

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