Raina is 17, living alternately on the streets with a boyfriend addicted to hard drugs and at home with an abusive mother, also an addict. She has been victimized by a succession of her mother's live-in boyfriends and lost a young brother to an accidental overdose: he swallowed some of his mother's pills while the mother slept and seven-year-old Raina was watching him.

Margaret Johnson is 45, Raina's teacher at an underfunded, overcrowded public school where Raina's life of squalor is more typical than not. Her own story is told in chapters that alternate with Raina's story and with the texts of autobiographical compositions Raina gives her but refuses to discuss. Only when Raina finds herself pregnant, shortly after her boyfriend has been killed in a drug-related accident, does she take Ms. Johnson up on her repeated offers of help.

She lives at the teacher's home for awhile, runs away to her own home, unused to kind treatment and afraid she'll disappoint the teacher and be thrown out, goes to a shelter, has her baby, and finally returns, having nowhere to go. Ms. Johnson, with some hesitation, takes her and the baby in and the three begin to work out a life together, knowing it will involve difficult change, but willing to bet on love against the odds.


This harsh story pulls no punches. It is not offensively graphic, but baldly explicit about what it is like to live on the streets, to live with abuse, and to work in a severely depressed environment where everyone is struggling with poverty, drugs, sexual threats, and crime. Both Raina's character and the teacher's are memorably well drawn.

The teacher's chapters offer bits of comic relief; she's a resilient woman who has seen troubles of her own, and has a wry sense of resignation about her failed marriage, inability to have children, barely running car, and inadequate school supplies, as well as the intermittent intrusions of an unsympathetic superintendent in a class where most of what she's able to do is damage control.

While it doesn't moralize about drug culture, the novel does make visible some of the dynamics that entrap even people who know better and want something different. Useful for reflection on what it might take to stop cycles of violence, addiction, abuse, and despair.



Place Published

New York



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