Thursday, June 19, 2014

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

"It was like the tornado had ripped through my house and torn me way."
In Torn Away, Jennifer Brown explores the issues of loss, grief and the meaning of family  during a  life-changing tragedy. Brown was inspired to write Torn Away as a result of the events in Joplin, Missouri in 2011. On May 22, of that year, the city of Joplin was devastated by an EF-5 tornado that resulted from a supercell thunderstorm originating in Kansas.One hundred and fifty-eight people died and over one thousand were injured. This tornado was one of the most deadly to ever strike the midwest United States.

Sixteen year old Jersey Cameron lives with her mom, her stepdad Ronnie and her little stepsister, Marin in Elizabeth, Missouri. Jersey's biological father, Clay Cameron, abandoned the family when she was a baby. And her mother's parents disowned her when she became involved with Clay.

Elizabeth is under frequent tornado warnings, so when one comes up after school, at first Jersey doesn't really pay attention. Her mother and  stepsister, Marin are at dance class and her step father is at work. Even when the power goes out, Jersey still doesn't blink. However, the weather worsens and Jersey decides to seek shelter in the basement.

As she lays terrified beneath the large pool table, Jersey hears the roar of the tornado as it sweeps down upon Elizabeth. After what seems like forever, the tornado passes on and Jersey is left battered and bruised but alive. She has no idea yet that her life has been changed forever.

Her neighbour, Kolby emerges from his home, relatively unscathed, although his home, like Jersey's, is in ruins. Their entire street is wiped out along with many other areas of Elizabeth. Eventually Jersey learns that her mother and Marin have been killed, two of at least one hundred other fatalities. Ronnie has survived, but it soon becomes apparent that he is not up to the task of taking care of Jersey nor getting their lives in order again. Distraught and overwhelmed, Ronnie contacts Jersey's father's family in Castor City asking them to take in Jersey.

Jersey is horrified to learn that she will be going to live in Castor City with her grandparents, Billie and Harold. She will be leaving her friends and the only home she knows. In desperation, Jersey contacts her friend Dani, and begs her to ask her mother to take her in. While waiting for Dani to help her, Jersey is picked up by her grandparents and driven to Caster City.

It quickly becomes apparent that no one at her father's parent's home wants her at the house in Caster City. Her grandparents are cold and insensitive and she discovers that her father, along with his wife, Tonette and their two daughters, Lexi and Meg are uncaring and mean, her father an alcoholic and crude man who tries to claim he is not her father. Jersey struggles to survive in a completely dysfunctional home and soon things get completely out of hand. Will Jersey's life ever be right again?

In an attempt to save herself, Jersey runs away and is finally picked up by Ronnie and taken to her mother's parent's home in Waverly. It is here that Jersey just might have the chance to recover from the terrible tragedy that has upended her entire world.

Brown has written a very realistic story about how life can change in the blink of eye, and how without friends or family to help, such loss can have the potential to destroy a person. When Jersey loses her family, she discovers that she has no one to turn to. Her best friend's mother won't get involved to help her. Ronnie is unable to cope and so he passes her on to the only people he believes will take Jersey - her father's family. However, it is immediately apparent that this family has too many of its own problems to adequately help Jersey cope with the loss she has experienced; in fact, they seem to not even acknowledge that loss, which makes it even worse for Jersey. The only person who appears to understand is Clay's sister, Terry, but she is not in a position to help Jersey. Clay and Grandmother Billie's sense of duty only add to the hurt that Jersey is feeling.

Adding to Jersey's emotional turmoil is the discovery of new information about her father, his family and her mother and father's relationship. These revelations continue even as she is moved to the Berry's (her mother's parents) home in Waverly. This leads Jersey to act out in anger towards her friends and especially towards her father and both sets of grandparents.

Another factor contributing to this bad behaviour is Jersey's lack of a safe environment to share her grief and her anger. This gradually changes when she goes to live with the Berry's. However, Jersey, at first, doesn't recognize this safe loving home for what it is because her mother has trained her to hate them as a result of what happened between her mother and her parents many years ago.
"The eight-year-old inside of me was afraid to breathe in this house, afraid of catching the oppression Mom had always talked about. Afraid of being judged. How did I know who this woman really was? How did I know she would turn on me the way Dani's mom had, or give up on me the way Clay had, lie to me the way Mom had, or cast me out the way Ronnie had?"
When Jersey's mother, Christine, refused to break-up with Clay, the Berry's told her that if she married him she should never come back. But as Jersey comes to know her grandparents better and listens to their side of the story, she realizes that her mother was also partly to blame for what happened because of her stubborn wilfulness. Jersey has to come to the realization that her loving her grandparents will not be a betrayal of her mother.

Having learned from their mistake, instead of judgment, the Berry's now offer Jersey love and support and it is in this environment that she finally starts to work through her grief.

Another interesting aspect of this novel is how our behaviour can shape others whether we realize this or not. The most obvious of course is how Jersey's mom trained her to hate her grandparents without ever meeting them. But Jersey, in reflecting back on her little sister, Marin, comes to realize that she behaved in a similar way. Her sister was fascinated with scorpions but when Jersey scares her, she changes that fascination into fear, forever changing how Marin will look at scorpions.
"I'd taken away her fascination and replaced it with fear. She'd died scared of bugs, because that was how I'd shaped her."

The novel's positive ending with a touch of a blossoming romance only add to the great storyline, the many diverse and well developed characters and the realistic portrayal of living through a tornado.

Jennifer Brown continues her tradition of excellent writing for teens with Torn Away. Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown
New York: Little Brown and Company 2014
276 pp.

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