Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White
Release Date: June 9th 2015
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Survival Strategy #50: If You Can, Be Brave.
After their mother's recent death, twelve-year-old Liberty and her eight-year-old sister, Billie, are sent to live with their father, who they haven't seen since they were very young. Things are great at first; the girls are so excited to get to know their father – a traveling photographer who rides around in an RV. But soon, the pressure becomes too much for him, and he abandons them at the Jiffy Company Gas Station.
Instead of moping around and being scared, Liberty takes matters into her own hands. On their journey to get home, they encounter a shady, bald-headed gas station attendant, a full-body tattooed trucker, free Continental breakfast, a kid obsessed with Star Wars, a woman who lives with rats, and a host of other situations.
When all seems lost, they get some help from an unlikely source, and end up learning that sometimes you have to get a little bit lost to be found.
There is nothing “almost” brave about Liberty. Without a doubt, she is one brave twelve year old. While internally she is freaking out about being abandoned at a gas station, she mainly keeps it together as she tries to get her and her sister back to the only home they’ve known. Her strategies, while dubious, keep both her and her sister alive and mostly out of harm’s way on their adventure.
As they make their way across the states, you can’t help but cheer them on. Every turn of the page, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the time they’d finally get caught. Maybe they’d finally reach their mother’s friend, Julie, back home. Liberty’s quick thinking gets her and Billie out of many sticky situations. Just as often, though, they find themselves in equally dire circumstances. Not everything can go according to plan.
I love how the story used flashbacks to fill you in on the missing pieces. It was done in a way that wasn’t confusing and only enhanced the story. I’ll admit that my heart broke several times learning what had landed them in their current predicament. Both Liberty and Billie were so desperate for their father’s love, but he just wasn’t capable of giving it. His mental illness/obsession took over, and he could barely perceive that the girls were there most days. There are glimmers that make it obvious that he wants to be the father they deserve, but he falls short time and time again. I appreciate how White shows how mental illness can take over and entrap a person even as they fight it, and how everyday things quickly become all-consuming and overwhelming.. Mental illnesses are rarely easy for the person or loved ones to deal with, something that White shows with grace.
The only thing that made me hesitate a little was the girls’ fear of the authorities. I could understand avoiding the creepy gas station man, but I never fully understood why they were so scared of the police catching them. Liberty’s fear kept them running and lead to stealing, lying, and many other questionable acts. I got a sense that Liberty was scared they’d be separated, but there was nothing in their past that would cause that nagging fear. If they had been placed in foster care after their mother’s death it would have worked, but it seems like Julie took over care right away. The only other explanation is that her mom said she was responsible for Billie now, but I don’t think that should have driven her to avoid all adult help. Of course, it was a necessity for the plot, but I wish there had been more explanation/backstory to it. I doubt the intended audience will be bugged by this, but it was something that annoyed me a little as an adult.
Final Verdict: A nice, fast-paced middle grade story that has humor, adventure, and a lot of heart.