Saturday, February 14, 2015

Fire Girl by Tony Abbott

Firegirl is a coming of age novel about a boy struggling to find the courage to do the right thing when a severely burned girl spends a short time in his school.

Tom Bender is in seventh grade at St. Catherine's Catholic school. Tom has a crush on stunning Courtney Zisky who sits in the last seat of the last row in Mrs. Tracy's class. Tom who wasn't a strong reader, managed to move up into the same group as Courtney in sixth grade and that's when his crush really took off. Courtney is so pretty she could be in fashion magazines and sitting close to her made him realize how nice her hair smells. He often fantasized about how he could save Courtney's life but Courtney has never actually noticed Tom nor has she ever included him. He is after all, "a sweaty, fat kid with baggy pants..." But that was soon to change in seventh grade, with the arrival of  Jessica Feeney.

Since he can't get Courtney to notice him as a result of his superpowers, Tom decides that he will nominate her as a candidate for class president. However Tom's attention is drawn away from Courtney when Mrs. Tracy announces that a new girl will be arriving in their class that day. Mrs. Tracy tells that class that Jessica was badly burned in a fire and that she will be attending St. Catherine's while she has treatments for her burns at a nearby hospital. Mrs. Tracy warns that class about how Jessica looks but this does little to prepare Tom and his classmates for the reality of how Jessica looks.

When Jessica arrives Tom and his classmates are shocked and repulsed by Jessica's appearance. Tom is concerned that she is in pain and feels that "being in that skin would make you want to scream and scream until you died." Tom's friend, Jeff Hicks, is grossed out by Jessica's appearance. Tom gradually learns more about Jessica, that her family is from Boston and that she has had many skin grafts. Jessica has been to many hospitals and likely won't be at St. Catherine's very long.

Tom's mother suggests that it might help if he talked to Jessica. This suggestion causes Tom to reconsider Jessica and to begin to think about the reality of her situation. He begins to sneak glances at her during class and to realize that behind the melted and scarred skin is a person. He finds it hard to think that Jessica is like him and the other kids in the class. But for his classmates, Jessica becomes an object for speculation. Jeff and Rich seem more interested in how Jessica was burned and begin to make up stories about what happened. Tom wants to stop these conversations but doesn't really know how. He doesn't have the courage to speak up at first. In an attempt to divert the conversation away from gossip, he ends up revealing his crush on Courtney. Things become even worse when her classmates discover a photograph that Jessica is carrying around. She tells them that the photo is of her dead sister, Anne. This revelation only serves to fuel the outrageous rumours and gossip Tom's classmates spread throughout the school regarding what happened to Jessica.

While all this is going on Tom's friendship with Jeff begins to deteriorate. Jeff's parents broke up two years ago and he now lives with his mother who works long hours as a nurse. His father isn't really interested in spending time with him now that he has a new girlfriend. All this has made Jeff an angry boy who acts out. Tom loves the Cobra, a classic sports car which Jeff's uncle Chuck supposedly owns. Jeff invites Tom to see the car when his uncle comes down and to go for a ride in it. But when the uncle doesn't show, Tom begins to wonder if either really exist.

When Tom is asked by Mrs. Tracy to take her school work to her house, he is invited in by Jessica's father. Tom spends some time talking with Jessica and before he leaves her house, Jessica's father tells him what really happened to her. This meeting completely changes how Tom thinks about Jessica but can he help his classmates change too?

Fire Girl is a story about how outward appearances often do not accurately reflect who a person is. Abbott demonstrates this best through the interactions between Jessica and Tom Bender. Jessica is terribly disfigured by her burns and everyone in the class is overwhelmed by her appearance. Tom's description is graphic.
"Jessica Feeney's face, the first thing everyone looked at, was like a mask. I looked at her, then away, and then back at her. I couldn't believe I was looking at the face of someone alive....Her lips were swollen. The nearly filled the space between her nose and chin. Her eyes peeked out from behind skin that looked melted....Her fingers were bent as if she were trying to grab something."

Yet days later, after searching about burn victims on the internet, Tom finds his perspective changing and sees her as more than just a burn victim. "I found that I started, in little bits, raising my head to look at her, but always when I knew she was turned the other way or couldn't see me. I discovered that if you didn't see the edge or her face or her hand or arm lying on the desk, she looked almost like any girl with dirty hair. It was sort of crushed and matted in the back. It almost began to feel as if there was a person in there."

By the end of the novel Tom has a very different view of Jessica. Tom sees past Jessica's outer disfigurement and recognizes that "Jessica was smart and nice and she'd been to lots of schools, so she knew how things worked." When Jeff beats him in nominating Courtney, Tom attempts to nominate Jessica but Mrs. Tracy doesn't hear him and he feels like he has failed. By the end of the novel, Tom, who initially found it difficult to hold Jessica's hand in class finds himself hugging her and crying when they say good bye. He even knows her eye colour.

Unlike Jessica, whom everyone can't help but notice, Tom is not noticed. He describes himself as a fat and sweaty kid and he's not popular. He's shy and doesn't speak up much. During the class campaign for president, Tom's mother "kept at me to get out there and get involved"  It is as a result of Jessica that Tom gradually begins to take steps to put himself out there. That first attempt is to do something kind for Jessica; first in trying to stop the wild gossip about her and then later on in an attempt to muster the courage to nominate her for class president. Although he doesn't completely succeed, these first steps are important. Jessica encourages him. "You really have to speak louder," she tells Tom.

Throughout the novel, Tom comes to a better understanding of what is important in life. At the beginning of the novel he is only interested in comics and the Cobra sports car. He wants to be popular like the beautiful Courtney Zisky and he wants to be noticed by her - hence the fantasizes about being a superhero who rescues her.  He is ashamed of how he has behaved towards Jessica and how his classmates have treated her. But Jessica tells him "Every time I go in the hospital, I find out all over again about what really matters. This doesn't." Like Jessica, Tom starts to understand there are more important things in life.

Fire Girl is an excellent novel to explore the above themes in greater detail along with many more including those of  identity and the nature of relationships. Told in Tom Bender's voice, Fire Girl is a sensitive, emotional story. Tom's character is very authentic; he's immature, sometimes caring, sometimes insensitive. Abbott has written that Fire Girl came out of a real personal experience in grade seven that included "a girl like Jessica, a friend like Jeff, a class election, a Cobra..."

Book Details:
Fire Girl by Tony Abbott
New York: Little, Brown and Company     2006
145 pp.

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