Seventeen-year-old girls and their circumstances are portrayed very differently in Vikki Wakefield’s Inbetween Days (Text Publishing) and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll Be There (Scholastic). Could the authors’ nationalities – Australian and American – and writing style be part of the reason?
Vikki Wakefield uses an Australian regional town setting (provokingly named ‘Mobius’) to forecast the dead-end of Jack’s (Jacklin) hopes for a better future. She has left school to work in a general store but is manoeuvered out of even that lowly job. Her sister Trudy has returned from Europe after leaving home in frosty conditions and Jack moves in with her but that situation is also under pressure.
Jack uses sex to keep her unacknowledged relationship with Luke alive. But she really wants to be privately and openly adored. Jeremiah seems to offer love but can he withstand Jack’s careless treatment?
Wakefield’s rendering of Jack as vulnerable yet tough, knowing yet naive, seems to point to a lacklustre future but can she summon enough self-esteem, resilience and drive to change her prospects?
Vikki Wakefield’s writing style seems particularly Australian in its understated tone. Characters act in particular ways and incidents occur realistically, without gilding but still with interest and engagement. The events in the forest and derelict drive-in theatre offer surprise without hyperbole.
In contrast American film writer and director Holly Goldberg Sloan’s debut novel (but second to be published in Australia after the wonderful Counting by 7s), I’ll Be There (Scholastic Australia) is written in a heightened style and abounds in idealism and coincidences. Like Inbetween Days it is an affecting read.
Seventeen-year-old Emily is quite protected. She is empathetic and loving. When her father makes her sing the pop song I’ll Be There as a solo at church even though she doesn’t have a good voice, she seems to be singing to Sam, who has walked in off the street. His father is a thief who has kept Sam and his younger brother Riddle out of school and drifting from place to place for years.
Sam is an enigma but is accepted into Emily’s family because of his untrained musical ability. Riddle is talented at art but is quite damaged, almost mute and with undiagnosed asthma. Emily’s mother develops a bond with him but neither boy can be pinned down because of their strange, antisocial upbringing and the control and vagaries of their dangerous father.
Despite suffering extreme physical trauma, Sam learns that ‘making a connection to a person can be the scariest thing that ever happens to you’. Emily learns that ‘while the world around you obsesses over all the wrong things, you know the secret. You know that there are things that matter, and then there is everything else.’ The words of the title song become even more moving as the book nears its end.