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The Second Life of Abigail Walker - Frances O'Roark Dowell There are many facets to the experience of reading a book beloved by a friend. There are probably others that these, but the ones I can think of right now are the friend, the friendship, society, the book itself, and the reader. The experience of reading seems tied up in all of those parts, but also, I think they are all individual experiences. I read this book because it is beloved by a friend, and I love the way it lets me know that friend better and what it says about our friendship that she would want me to read it. So, when I talk about this book, and how I did not enjoy it, I’m really only focusing on my experience with the book itself. I felt like I needed to make that clear before I start tearing up the dance floor.

This left me with a feeling of . . . huh. It was partly magical, partly sad, and above all else very, very troubling. Reading this book reminded me of this time when I lived in New York, and one of my roommates said to me, “Is everyone in Oregon like you, or are you weird there, too?” It was very alienating and, again, troubling. This book tells the story of a girl who, most of all, more than anything else, struggles with her weight because the people around her are obsessed with her weighing five pounds more than the normal weight for her age. There is also a fox in here, and maybe the fox has PTSD. I found it . . . really odd and, again, troubling. There is a 95% chance that I didn’t get it.

The basic plot of this story, like I say, is that everyone around Abigail Walker is really, really mad about how much she weighs, she meets a magical fox with PTSD and a man with PTSD, and then she learns to ride horses, cast off her fears, and be happy. But, there are a lot of things that happen along the way that were (if I haven’t already said this) really, really troubling to me. And there are some other things that were just confusing. I guess I’ll talk about the confusing things first, then the troubling things.

Confusing things:

1. These are my awards, Mother. The PTSD man explains to Abigail that he met his ex-wife in Peace Corps, and then he decided to go into Army because he thought it would pay for college. But, you have to have an undergraduate degree to go into Peace Corps, and I’m pretty sure that’s been a requirement for a long time, so that was weird. And it kind of undermined that whole character to me. Why did that guy really go into the army? And why did he say he was in the Peace Corps if he didn’t have an undergrad degree? Suspect.

Buster Bluth saying, ‘These are my awards, Mother, from army’

2. Bread makes you fat??!!. Abigail’s family is emotionally abusive about her weight, which is 105 lbs. and appears, from the internet, to be five pounds over the normal weight for girls her age. FIVE POUNDS! So, we’re not talking unhealthy, even. But, the parents are so creepily fixated on it that her dad doesn’t take pictures of her anymore and stares her down across the dinner table. So, the one time the family eats dinner in the book, Abigail’s mom makes pizza.

(Sidebar: that is another sub-level of confusing for a mom who is a history professor and always lost in her books and detached from the reality of the family, but, whatever, maybe she also loves to cook and isn’t just trying to be more stepford-creepy than she otherwise appears to be, despite being educated and scholarly. I don’t object to the idea of a professor being a Stepford wife, but I kind of wanted more description about how that actually worked. Also, I’m not meaning that cooking is creepy, just that the mom is kind of creepy in, well, A LOT of ways. “Don’t fight, now, kids! Fighting bad.” “You MUST go to the mean girls’ house, Abigail!” “Your father just yells at you about dieting because he loves you!” brrrrr.)

Anyway, the mom makes cheese pizza for Abigail and sausage pizza for the rest of the family. And it’s like the part in Silence of the Lambs where he keeps saying to the girl in the pit, “It rubs the lotion on its skinnnnn.” The whole family fixates on her, warning her away from even reaching for a regular salad dressing. It eats the cheese pizza and no other pizza!!

But, that’s weird, right? Because how much healthier is plain cheese pizza than sausage pizza? Answer: not at all healthier, and they have basically equivalent calories. So, chill out, Mom and Dad, you creepy assholes!

Scott Pilgrim saying, ‘Bread makes you fat?!’

3.How am I supposed to get into Harvard if I have no wilderness skills?! After Abigail ditches her creepy friends, who also want to watch it rub the lotion on its skinnn, she makes friends with a nerdy computer girl. There is this confusing subplot about how Abigail needs to research all of the animals Lewis and Clark saw on the Oregon trail for the PTSD man, and the nerdy computer girl helps her. Mostly, the nerdy computer girl helps her because Abigail is incompetent at googling. The nerdy computer girl warns her, however, that she will NEVER GET INTO COLLEGE if Abigail doesn’t learn how to google from said nerdy computer girl.

Okay asshole: again, chill out. You are in SIXTH GRADE!! You might get into Harvard, even if you have no wilderness skills. If not, I’ll take you upstairs, throw you out the window, and if you catch the branch of a tree, I’ll be your witness.

So, those were the things that made me feel like, who are these creepy assholes??? Confusing. Next, I’m going to talk about the things I thought were actually troubling, not just confusing.

Troubling things:

I don’t have fancy gifs for this part. This part is just about how the overall premise of the story seems somewhat messed up.

1. Bullying. I remember once, in fourth grade, I didn’t want to be friends with this girl anymore because she would only talk about boys, and because her dad freaked me out. I, being a fourth grader, didn’t deal with it really well, as you might imagine, and at one point the situation culminated in a group of girls sort of making a wall around me and telling my friend that I didn’t have to talk to her if I didn’t want to. I remember feeling both like, “This seems accurate. I shouldn’t have to talk to someone if I don’t want to,” and also like, “This seems really mean and extreme, and I don’t know how to diffuse this situation.” The girl was so upset that her parents talked to the principal about it, and I think my parents ultimately got called into the school because of it. Years later, I would run into her every once in a while, and I always wanted to apologize for that, but, does that make it any better? We were really mean to that girl, even though to us there was some kind of self-preservation aspect to it, but it wasn’t really okay. But, what do you say to apologize and does an apology only make it worse?

I’ve been watching Buffy with my roommate, who is a PhD student in early intervention in special education. When Cordelia first came on the screen, my roommate commented that it’s so funny how TV always shows characters like Cordelia, when, in real life those situations don’t ever really happen. Like, people who have as little social inhibition as Cordelia probably have Asperger’s, and probably don’t have a lot of social power. But, in Buffy, Cordelia is such a great character because she is a shorthand for a mean girl, but also she is a caricature, so her mean-girl power is completely undermined. I think that creates a really great social message because, yes, it sucks to have someone be an asshole, but assholes only have as much power over our lives as we give them, and the Buffy gang doesn’t give Cordelia any power.

So, partly I think it makes sense to simplify an experience of bullying, but that was not what I felt was going on here. (I have to admit, though, that I read [b:A Monster Calls|8621462|A Monster Calls|Patrick Ness|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1356015593s/8621462.jpg|13492114] right before I read this one, and I thought the way that discussed bullying was so beautiful it made my brain self-destruct, and I am making an unfair comparison between the two books, my own experience, and Buffy.) Nevertheless, in Abigail Walker, it felt like the mean girls were some kind of physical manifestation of a person’s own self-loathing thoughts. All the lurking and skulking around Abigail’s house, and then the weird plan to videotape Abigail eating candy. It was so weird and pathetic that I’m struggling to really wrap my brain around anyone being scary who was stupid enough to want to do that. I mean, the girls are creepy little assholes, but all of the threats seemed like things that would be scary when you thought them in your head, but if you actually said them out loud (or wrote them down) you’d realize how stupid and not scary they were and how uninterested everyone ever would be in watching a video of a girl eating candy.

My point is that I don’t get these bullies. They don’t seem like characters to me, and to the extent they are physical manifestations of somebody’s personal demons, I really don’t like the idea of giving them so much voice in this story. I mean, everyone has to fight their own monsters in their own way, but giving your monster the dominant social voice in your book seems like a way to nurture your monster, not fight it.

2. Being Normal. Probably the dominant theme of this book is that it’s okay to not be normal, which is a wonderful theme. The way it was executed, though, was another troubling thing to me. Abigail feels like she is not normal because she is five pounds over the normal weight for her age. So, that in itself is tainted with all the creepy assholes around her and seems super creepy in itself. She makes friends with the PTSD man’s son, who also feels not normal. The boy feels not normal because his dad keeps him on this farm and won’t let him leave the boundaries of the farm for any reason because he might get hurt. He is homeschooled by participating in the great Lewis and Clark study.

At one point, the son compares his situation to Abigail’s. He says that Abigail's mom is wrong for saying she’s not normal because she’s too fat. And then he comments that maybe his own mother is similarly wrong for wanting him to be in a school instead of being homeschooled in the country with his mentally ill father. Sooooo . . . . That raises a lot of issues for me. Like, this kid’s mother was a Peace Corps volunteer, and somehow in a custody battle her mentally ill husband got custody of their son? What is up with that? And, like, really? It’s the same to be five pounds overweight as to be trapped in the country acting as a caretaker for a mentally ill person??? This is kind of outrageous to me.

I realize it is a kid who makes this statement in the book, but the kid has a pretty strong voice within the story and is sort of built up to be wise. When he says maybe he and Abigail are actually both okay even though they are not normal, you can tell that statement is supposed to carry the weight of wisdom. I just have a big problem with both the comparison and the idea that it is okay for this kid to be trapped on a farm caring for his father. Very stressful.

3. Weight. I guess I kind of want to talk more about weight, but I’ve probably talked long enough. Maybe all I will say is that I think this book perpetuates the idea that being fat or thin is based on a mindset or emotional change. Abigail walks up the hill to the PTSD man's house the first time, and she huffs and puffs. The second time, though, she is less sad and self-condemning, so she can just run up the hill with no problem. I feel like that is a really negative message to perpetuate. I think that taking care of our bodies is like taking care of anything else and involves responsibility and eating enough food for our bodies, not just eating less food. I feel like the idea is not rare that if you have a healthy sense of self, being athletic and thin will become easy. That really bothers me both because it's clearly false, and because I think it creates this idea that good people are thin and bad people are fat, which is a very troublingly false idea, as well. Also, I've been using the website myfitnesspal.com to lose the weight I gained in school, and I've come to believe that with people who perpetually gain weight, overall it's probably not so much that they eat to much food, but probably more that they eat too little, sending their bodies into storage mode for when they eat too much. That has at least turned out to be true for me. The way the entire world in this book only wanted Abigail to eat less, not for her to be healthy, was really troubling.

I think those are all of my issues. I found this story very distressing to read. While Abigail seemed to have a somewhat strong sense of self despite the creepy monsters around her, I couldn’t really get where that sense of self was coming from. She clearly had no adult or peer support, so when she would make some kind of self-possessed statement, it always felt shaky because how does a sixth grader resist wanting to punish her body when everyone around her clearly does? A lot of this seemed like the written manifestation of imaginary monsters, and that freaked me out not a little. I don’t generally enjoy an author exorcising demons through writing, and doing so in a children’s book, in a way that felt more like nurturing than exporcising, makes me feel even more uncomfortable. This one was not for me.

The publisher provided me a copy of this book, but I did nothing in return.