my hands are streaked with blood that is not my own.
my hands are streaked with blood, and there is screaming.
somewhere in the house. . .
The reader knows from the start of family that something terrible is happening to seventeen-year-old Melinda. But what? Whose blood is on her hands? As the novel winds back and forth through time, the story is slowly revealed in all its horror.
The reader understand pretty quickly that Mel is troubled, especially since her first words in the book are "i have always been broken. this is something i have known forever." It's not a great surprise when Mel runs away from home--home is nothing but a sexually abusive stepfather and a disconnected mother who turns a blind eye. Homeless and starving on a bench in the Haight (an area of San Fransisco where lots of displaced teens wound up in the sixties) Mel is swept into the orbit of a mesmerizing young man named Henry. He finds her on that bench and he offers her the world. Henry "collects broken people" and brings them to a ranch in Death Valley where they live a supposedly Utopian lifestyle of free love, peace, and harmony. There Melinda finds "sisters," girls like her who all worship Henry. In fact, one of them tells Mel straight out, "Henry is Jesus Christ." The warning signs are there--Henry's "family" is not as perfect and peaceful as it seems, and the power he holds over his followers is frightening--but Mel is so hungry for acceptance and love that she ignores those signs. Slowly Henry's message of love turns to one of venegeance. By this time, Mel is caught in the middle of it, the fly in Henry's spider web.
family is a beautifully written novel, told in free verse. I know novels-in-verse turn off some readers, but even for those uncomfortable with poetry, family is a good read. The few drawbacks of the book had nothing to do with the poetry, actually. For me the negatives were these: sometimes the time line of events is confusing and sometimes phrases are repeated ad nauseum. However, if you pay close attention, you can understand the time line. And if you think about the point of the repetition (isn't that something cults do to their new members?) you accept it.
I think I am going to nominate this book for our annual Mock Printz award discussion. I really enjoyed family, though "enjoyed" isn't quite the right word considering all that blood on Melinda's hands. . .