On The Fence is a poignant coming-of-age story about a girl growing into womanhood who struggles to remember the mother she misses and to unravel her deepening feelings for the boy next door.
When Charlie acquires a second speeding ticket, her dad insists she get a job to pay him back for the tickets and as insurance against any future tickets. Charlie doesn't want to work, but with the help of brother Gage, she manages to get hired on by Linda who owns a clothing store, Linda's Bazaar. Linda is an earthy woman whose motherly concern for Charlie manifests itself in helping Charlie purchase suitable clothing for working in the boutique. Charlie has to wear something other than her typical t-shirt, jeans and beat up sneakers.
Lately Charlie has seen the nightmares about her mother return and when she can't sleep she decides to go sit out in the backyard by the fence. For the past four years, Charlie has found that running before bed made her tired enough to sleep through the night, helping to avoid the recurring nightmares. But lately running hasn't worked. One night in her backyard she witnesses Braden's father coming home drunk, yelling at Braden and his mom. Upset at what she's witnessed, Charlie talks to Braden through their shared fence. Soon they find themselves meeting frequently in the middle of the night, Charlie on her side of the fence, Braden on his side. They talk about Braden's family problems and Charlie's life. Charlie challenges Braden to a game to see who knows more about the other.
Meanwhile Charlie begins to enjoy her job at Linda's. She finds Linda to be a kind manager who encourages her. However, when Linda makes a general remark about Charlie's mother, instead of telling Linda that her mother died, Charlie acts as though her mother is still alive. This little lie unsettles Charlie, but she's tired of being pitied when people ask.
When a girl drops off ads for make up demos at the store, Linda suggests that Charlie sign up to be a makeup model. Charlie agrees to do this, forging her dead mother's signature on the permission paper. Unable to sleep after doing this, Charlie meets Braden at the fence in the middle of the night confessing her guilt over what she's done in a sort of general way.
The make up demo goes well, with Amber doing basic makeup of Charlie's face. Amber's friendly and an Olympic chatter which makes the session pass easily. Charlie who was dreading the session because she is completely out of her league when it comes to girly things, finds it not quite so bad. When she discovers how much money she can make from just one session Charlie agrees to do a second one.
Gradually Charlie begins to realize that she's falling in love with Braden, but he doesn't seem to reciprocate her feelings. Charlie can't stop the way she feels but she knows she has to. "I needed to stop the way my body was reacting to Braden lately. We were friends. Too close to ever want to explore these stupid new reactions and risk losing him forever."
Charlie meets a new guy, Evan, when she goes out with Amber and her friends after the second make-up session. When Evan, who in Charlies eyes is "hot and nice" learns she is a sports nut, he invites her to come with him to see an Oakland Athletics baseball game. It's supposed to be a double date but Charlie knows she can't invite Braden because Amber and her new guy, Dustin will likely come with them.
Things between Charlie and Braden become strained when one night Charlie thinks he's going to tell her that he has feelings for her but instead Braden tells her that he wanted to talk about something very different. Embarrassed and humiliated Charlie leaves. "Of course, Braden didn't like me like that. I was his buddy, his pal, his sister. A burly girl who played sports. The only way a guy would ever like me was with a thick layer of makeup."
This seems to make things easier for Charlie to date Evan because she assumes that Braden simply views her as one of the guys and not a girl who could be a potential girlfriend/date. But when Braden fills in for Amber's date who falls ill, his behaviour seems to suggest that he is jealous. Evan doesn't know Charlie very well but assumes she is like other girls, clueless about sports, especially baseball and into nice clothes and makeup. Braden tells Charlie that he's not the right person for her since she can't be herself around him. Charlie knows she's faking it but maybe this is what she has to do to get a guy interested. These mixed feelings make it hard for Charlie to cope with having Braden around and she wonders how do you stay friends with someone you've fallen for?
On The Fence is a sweet story that touches on the themes of identity, honesty and first love, all of which are interconnected. Charlie has always been seen as "one of the guys" but she begins to wonder if that means guys aren't attracted to in her. Does she have to change who she is to get a date and should she? She becomes aware of this when she goes to Woodward Park to play disc golf with her brothers and they find a girl's lost Frisbee with her contact information on it. While her older brother Jerom thinks it's "hot" that a girl plays disc golf, Gage says, " 'I don't know. A girl who plays disc golf? She's probably a dog. Some aggressive, burly thing.'
The guys laughed...Maybe that's how they saw me. Maybe that's how most guys saw me."
Later on as Charlie begins dating Evan she feels that she must be a different kind of girl than who she is - one who wears makeup and different clothing, who doesn't know about baseball and definitely someone who doesn't play tackle football with the guys. When Braden sees Charlie behaving differently around Evan he tells her "If you can't be yourself around him, then you shouldn't be dating him." But Charlie challenges Braden asking him how many of the guys they know have raced to ask her out. "If they want someone to date, they go to the mall or the club and find a girl who wears tight clothes and does her nails and giggles at their jokes.... Guys don't want a competitor, they want a cheerleader." Seeing Charlie sitting out a tackle football game, Braden again reminds her, "You don't have to change for a guy," telling her that by compromising, she isn't showing Evan the real Charlie.
Charlie's dishonesty with Evan is mirrored in her other relationships with Linda whom she lied to about her mother. Charlie's struggle to find her own identity and to accept it comes to a head when her lies to Linda are revealed, causing Linda disappointment and hurt and bringing down the wrath of her father. Charlie feels guilt because she knows Linda understands her and is able to help her understand herself and she recognizes she needs someone like this in her life as the men around her cannot provide this much needed insight. Charlie reveals to her father why she lied about her mother's death and asks him to explain what happened to her mother. She learns that her father and brothers were trying to protect her from the truth of her mother's death, but in doing so they prevented Charlie from coming to terms with her death and healing.
By the end of the novel, Charlie comes to a sort of self-acceptance which allows her to tell both Evan and Braden the truth. She also accepts that her athleticism is a good thing but
that she also might want to be open to stepping out of her comfort zone
and using a bit of makeup for special occasions. Things like makeup and
nice dresses don't make her anything less than who she is. They don't
take away her identity.
Charlie is a believable character, and West does a great job filling in her character as the story progresses. Like many sixteen year old girls, she's just figuring herself out, what her strengths are, how to navigate the world of boys and relationships, how to deal with uncomfortable conversations and coming to terms with a family tragedy that happened ten years earlier.
On The Fence is a gentle romance and coming of age story that will appeal to many readers. Kasie West has placed another great read on the bookshelf.
On The Fence by Kasie West
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books 2014