Sunday, December 12, 2010

YA Book Review: Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Vera Dietz lives her life trying to hide the fact that her mother was a stripper and left her and her alcoholic (recovering) father when Vera was 12.  She sends out her "Please Ignore Vera Dietz" signals and attempts to walk through the early stages of high school as anonymous as she can be with her neighbor and best friend, Charlie.  She is embarrassed about her family and just wants to blend in with the linoleum floors of the high school.

Charlie also lives with a bit of a secret.  A rather disturbing secret which earns him 30 dollars a week.  And an incriminating DVD by the end of the novel.

A.S. King's YA novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not shy.  Among its characters are a pedophile, a morally loose girl explicitly offering herself to Charlie, an alcoholic dad, an on-the-path-to-becoming-an-alcoholic daughter, another dad who physically beats his wife, a son who hits his girlfriend, a college dropout, a skinhead who also commits violence against a female, an openly gay high school detention monitor who gets ridiculed, a high school senior who can't read but he is going to college on a football scholarship, and a nameless character who answers the door and pays for his pizza in the nude.  This is all in one neighborhood.  Oh, and one of the girls burns down the pet store with many defenseless animals inside.

Some of the more charming and brilliant moments of the novel are King's use of flowcharts.  These are actual graphics in the novel which highlight the paths to a variety of mistakes we can all make in our lives.  A recurring message in the novel, however, is that it is very easy for anybody to avoid the devastating mistakes we make in our lives.  We so often anchor ourselves down with pride that we rarely take the opportunities to make things right.  We'd almost rather blind (bind?) ourselves and choose incorrectly.  By allowing bad things to weigh us down, we only have ourselves to blame.  The spirit of Charlie, talking to the reader from "the other side" suggests that the bad decisions we make while we are alive are most often made out of fear or hopelessness that nothing good is going to come of it anyway, so why bother.  These are the choices which can be so easy to avoid, yet we allow ourselves to make them...and act surprised when the outcome is ugly.  It is King's use of the flowchart which illustrates this message in very clear, poignant, and humorous, diagrams.

I think the book was written from an honest place.  The whole core of the book is that Vera Dietz both loves and hates Charlie.  She hated him before he died, and hated him after he died.  She loved him before he died, she loved him after he died.  All while nipping on a bottle of vodka she keeps tucked away under her car seat.  Vera also gets beat up quite a bit in the novel, both literally and spiritually.  Her best friend literally throws animal feces at her at one point.  It doesn't get much lower than that symbolically, does it?

Vera makes decisions to go to and with Charlie, and she also makes the choice to remove herself from his company and friendship.  Even after Charlie has passed and has been dead for months, Vera still vacillates between this hatred and love.  It is her struggle, and we are along for the ride with her in her car as she delivers pizzas and swallows down a lot of vodka.

There are many sensitive issues in the book which are placed on the page in brutal frankness.  They happen in the book, and they happen in life.  As is so often the case, the best authors are those who offer the best questions, not offer answers.  King's novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz offers a hell of a lot of questions and opportunities for conversations among young people, and certainly between adults and young people.  If a health class ever taught a novel or was looking for a book I'd say I'd recommend this; there are enough issues in this to keep discussion going in an 8th grade health class for several marking periods.

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