|Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White |
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
The girls have already lost their mother to a fatal traffic accident, and when their reluctant, unstable photographer father takes them in, his RV seems as a good as a gingerbread cottage. But when things go wrong, he abandons the girls, as he has once before, this time without even a pocketful of bread crumbs.
Liberty reassures herself with an endless trove of animal facts and survival strategies gleaned from Animal Planet and National Geographic and recorded in her notebook for just this kind of emergency. Survival Strategy #8: Escape if you dare. Survival Strategy #35: Beware of Unexpected Gifts. She's more than almost-brave -- she's all the way there, resourceful even in fear and protective of her sister. Encountering people who might be dangerous and some who turn out to be helpful, Liberty invents new survival strategies based on her own experiences: Survival Strategy #41: Dr Pepper can ruin everything. Survival Strategy #48: Rescue yourself. These strategies are way beyond anything on Animal Planet.
Before I picked up Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave (my copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review), I read Sage Blackwood's Jinx, which opens with a Hansel and Gretel beginning: Young Jinx is lead into the vicious and dangerous Urwald by his step-father-many-times-removed to be abandoned to his inevitable death. His eventual triumphs take many more wrong turns than Liberty and Billie's -- he must battle trolls, ally with werewolves, defeat evil wizards, unite a kingdom, recover from his own death.
Yet Liberty and Billie's trials are more frightening. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave is filled with heart, color, and good humor -- Liberty and Billie are vivid and appealing characters, and Liberty's first-person voice is authentic and convincing. But this is not a comic adventure -- the girls face loss and peril that is all the more real because of the realistic contemporary setting.
And this is when I remember that the Grimm Brothers didn't write of events that were remote, but of fears that were all too possible. Their stories were not just stories, and neither is White's.
Take away the rest stop Twinkies, Dr Pepper, and Nutter Butters, and there is nothing sweet about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave. The losses and risks Liberty and Billie are the primal and darkest fears of modern children, and for many children they are too real. Liberty and Billie save themselves in the end, as surely as do Hansel and Gretel, but there is no witch, no gruesome justice enacted -- just survival strategies that Liberty and Billie take forward to the next time life takes them somewhere they don't want to go.