“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.“ To kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee
Surviving high school is tough. Navigating the politics of the classroom and lunch room is hard enough, and joining a new school part way through even harder. Consider then that you move to a new school when you are homeless and living out of a van with your little sister and mum and dad. Welcome to Abby’s new life.
The book gently unfolds how Abby and her family find themselves in this situation. Abby’s mum was a teacher and had an affair with a colleague, which was discovered and made very public. At the same time that Abby’s mum loses her job for her indiscretion, her father is made redundant when his employer goes bankrupt. Sometimes you can be just a few paychecks from poverty. When that income stream is lost, savings can quickly be eroded. And then things get really bad.
Without family or other support, Abby and her family move north to Minnesota to make a new start there. While the children go to school in the day, the parents look for jobs and hunt out what help they can from the community. For supper they go to the Salvation Army soup kitchen and in the weekend the church hosts a similar lunch, but rather than making them feel needy and helpless, the church lunch makes them feel like guests and offers more support. This for me was an important distinction: when these people have already lost everything, the church lunch helped them to keep or regain their dignity.
Abby has to work hard to keep up the pretence that she has a normal home life (indeed, a home). She meets some new friends who are warm and welcoming, and well-to-do. The contrast between what they have and how they live is stark with Abby’s reality. She struggles with their easily given generosity, but when she sees that it isn’t just directed at her, that they share things with each other, she is gracious in accepting.
But how long can she maintain the pretence? And will her world come crashing down again if anyone finds out?
This book was touching and thought-provoking without becoming schmaltzy. It has the classic theme of trying to endure high school with the elevated emotion and worries of a person struggling with abject poverty.
After reading the book I did some research. Recent statistics in the U.K. state that 80,000 families (including 120,000 children) are homeless in the U.K. They will be housed in temporary accommodation, often a B&B, but without any security as to how long they can stay. Approximately half of these families have working parents, but they can not escape their circumstances because of the high cost of private rents, the freeze in housing benefit and the scarcity of social housing. The book has made me ask myself, how can I do more? A question which I asked myself after reading Becoming by Michelle Obama also. I’m picking up on a theme…
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