By Ng Jing Ting (20A13A) and Ng Ziqin (20S03H)
Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.
At least Harry Potter had the Dursleys, but How to Make Friends With the Dark’s orphaned protagonist has no one.
Going into Kathleen Glasgow’s How to Make Friends With the Dark, we weren’t very sure what to expect. The novel’s description on Goodreads paints it as an emotional commentary on loss, but the novel’s opening chapters give off a very typical coming-of-age vibe. In a way, it is a little bit of both.
Set in Mesa Luna, Arizona, this YA novel goes beyond exploring the usual perils of American teenagehood. It deals with aspects of teenage life that most teenagers will (thankfully) never have to grapple with. At the same time, it manages to touch on relatable teenage problems: friendship, overbearing parents, and discovering that your crush is not who you thought they were.
The novel is split into three parts—Before, After, and Now—with the After portion making up the bulk of the story.
In Before, we are introduced to Tiger Tolliver, a sheltered 17-year-old who lives with her doting (if slightly over-protective) mother. While life is far from perfect, her problems seem mundane: paying the rent on time, her weird thrift-shop clothing, feeling less beautiful than the other girls in her grade, and getting her mom to let her go to the Memorial Days Dance with her crush, Kai Henderson.
Like nearly every teenage girl in the universe, Tiger has a complicated relationship with her mother. Tensions between them finally come to a head when Mom buys her a hideous dress, described by Tiger to be “a cross between Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie and Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady”, for the dance.
Personally, we don’t see why that’s a bad thing.
Upset, Tiger has a very explosive, very public phone conversation with her mother in the school cafeteria. Later in the same day, right after Tiger’s first kiss with Kai, Kai receives a call. He’s the one who breaks the terrible news to Tiger that her mother is dead.
All of this happens within the first 40 pages. We almost get whiplash from how quickly Kathleen Glasgow genre-switches from the mundane to the melancholic.
In After, Tiger is left to deal with the crippling guilt of her last words to her mom being “Why can’t you ever just leave me alone?”. Because she has no known living relatives, Tiger becomes a ward of the state and must learn to navigate the thorny Arizona foster care system alone, all while coping with the grief of losing her mother. Talk about depressing.
The theme of abusive parent-child relationships is one that is explored in great detail. Many of the foster kids Tiger meets have parents who have been deemed incapable of caring for their children due to abusive tendencies or neglect. Apart from Thaddeus, the jaded, street-savvy boy whose stepfather stomped on his back and broke it and who never healed right, one of the other characters is a boy whose drug addict father left him on top of a car when he was a newborn, causing him to fall off, while another is a ten-year-old girl who lived in a cardboard refrigerator box with her sister, scavenging leftover hotdogs from the trash for sustenance.
That these kids’ parents have mistreated them calls into question the state’s basic assumption that blood is thicker than water. It proves, at the very least, that blood relations are no guarantee that a child will be well cared for. Yet, the state holds familial ties above all others in terms of who an orphaned child is to be released to, dogmatic in its refusal to allow even family friends to take in a child in spite of evidence of being able to provide a loving home for her. This links back to another theme featured prominently in the book: that the US foster care system (or at the very least, the Arizonian foster care system) is, well, terrible.
Despite the fact that the Cake (Tiger’s friend) is willing to give Tiger a home, the case worker is unwilling to release Tiger to her friend’s family because they aren’t blood relatives.
Cake starts to cry. “You can’t just take her. She’s like my sister.”
Her mom, Rhonda, spits, “This is ridiculous. This child’s mother has died, and she should be with us.”
This bureaucratic inflexibility makes what is already a trying time even more difficult for Tiger. Instead of being with familiar people who care about her, she is thrust into a brand new living environment, forced to adapt to strange new rules imposed by foster parents who lock refrigerators and make the kids go to bed at 8 pm, as well as the other foster kids who are jaded by years of being kicked around from one foster family to another like empty drink cans. There are a few bright spots in this bleak narrative, truly wonderful foster parents like Lala, but it is made clear to us that they tend to be the exception, not the norm.
All my parents, Leonard had said. How many has he had? How many more locked refrigerators and cups of too-warm milk and plates of boiled meat am I going to have before this is all over and I’m… what? Spit out on the sidewalk? Eighteen, with a dented pink suitcase and… nothing?
When Tiger finally exits the foster care system, it is due to the revelation that she has a secret blood relative. While Tiger’s first meeting with Shayna is characterised by hostility and apprehension, Shayna’s valuable assertiveness is soon apparent as she confronts an ornery landlord and Tiger’s school bullies, threatening blackmail and her wrath. In short, she is the perfect guardian—protective, suave and worldly, with a touch of Kat Stratford’s signature sassiness.
Yet for all these feats of bravery it is evident that Shayna is uncomfortable and manifestly inadequate in her new caregiving role. At 20, Shayna is barely out of her teens herself but must now assume the mantle of guardianship over Tiger. She demonstrates the qualities of a child unable to live by herself, calling into question her ability to care for Tiger in the way a capable mother would.
Shayna’s attempts at responsibility are frequently thwarted by her own flippancy and Tiger’s scepticism. In light of this, the caregiver-ward relationship between them is frequently inverted, with Tiger assuming the role of the responsible adult.
There are times when it feels like any one of the plot points in How To Make Friends With the Dark could have functioned in its own right as the plot of a whole other story. In any other novel, the presence of so many twists could have felt like there was too much happening too quickly, but here the heightened drama somehow worked. Language-wise, the use of present tense lends itself well to the story, making it feel like the reader is living the story with Tiger as she is telling it, almost like a stream of consciousness. Certain chapters, written in second person, also help to underscore the out-of-body feelings that Tiger is experiencing as she feels increasingly detached from her life.
Glasgow’s writing style is very metaphor and imagery based, with the image of Tiger as the ‘girl bug’ being the most evocative. Other interesting features: Tiger’s use of hashtags to underscore certain emotions or thoughts, and the labelling of each new chapter with the number of days, hours, and minutes that Tiger’s mother has been dead for, which helps further the image of Tiger as a grieving daughter.
Your mind races, because you don’t know what to expect, because there isn’t a manual for death, though you are really, really starting to wish there were. What did they call those starter books for little kids a long time ago? Primers. There should be primers for death, so you could connect all the dots, like shock to sadness to ashes to sadness to shock to alone. #dyingfordummies #deathmanual #aprimerforpainA prime example exhibiting both Glasgow’s use of second person and the characteristic hashtags
As conclusions go, the book’s ending is rather trite—Tiger finally finds her happy ending, reuniting with Shayna settling into a routine of grief support group meetings at Eugene Field. This presentation of happiness comes across as rather simplistic contrived when juxtaposed to the dark twists that came before. Nonetheless, it is commendable that How to Make Friends With the Dark makes a concerted effort to engage in social commentary, which it executes with painful accuracy and impartiality. It paints a cheerful picture of recovery while accepting that there are individuals who will take months, years, or even a lifetime to recover from the grief caused by the death of a loved one. Tiger’s silent musings about the family situations of her new schoolmates pays tribute to the thousands of children from abusive households who are swallowed up into the bowels of the US foster care system, only to be spat out unceremoniously when they turn 18.
Overall, How to Make Friends With the Dark offers readers a heartbreaking take on the foster care system and one girl’s personal journey through grief. If Tiger’s uphill climb towards recovery and self-forgiveness served any purpose, it drives home an important message: In your darkest hour, remember to let the light in. And if you can’t?
You simply must learn how to make friends with the dark.
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