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Runaway    by Wendelin Van Draanen order for
by Wendelin Van Draanen
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

At twelve-years-old Holly Janquel has already lived a life of turmoil and pain. Teacher Ms. Leone gives Holly a journal, with the assignment to 'Put your most embarrassing experience in the form of a cinquain poem'. Though Holly thinks journaling is idiotic, she writes: 'Prisoner / Chained outside / Shivering, huddling, sobbing / Naked in the rain / Alone'. This May 17th entry begins her journaling experiences. She writes, 'You think you know what I'm going through, you think you know how I can 'cope', but you're just like everybody else: clueless.' And from there on she blames Ms. Leone for what she is about to do - 'RUNAWAY', commenting 'it's all your fault'.

Holly's dad died in an accident somewhere, mom died from shooting up, and a driving thought with Holly is 'It's a cold, hard, cruel fact that my mother loved heroin more than she loved me.' In her (current) fifth foster home with the Benders, the Mr. constantly touches her - just like Mr. Fisk did at the previous foster home. The Benders lock her in the laundry room, with one blanket. It is cold - and not the real room they show social services. 'But if I complain to a social worker ... I won't get belief - I'll get 'you're just looking for trouble'.' So Holly runs away, something she's done before. But this time she's determined it is for good. Traveling by city bus, as a stowaway in a horse trailer, she then walks the railway tracks, and performs quite a feat as she climbs a tree, hangs from a branch waiting for a railcar headed west, and jumps onto an open-top railcar full of potatoes.

At a station, Holly climbs unnoticed into the luggage hold of a bus traveling to California. After many hours and stops, the Greyhound reaches Los Angeles, where all she sees is cement-and-graffiti, and desert. 'I want grass and trees'. Inside a restaurant are 'creepy guys ... the night of the living dead'! She muses, 'This isn't the 'City of Angels', it is more like 'Hell On Earth'.' Holly spends nights with other homeless folk under a bridge, where she claims 'I'm not homeless ... I'm a gypsy!' She takes refuge in an 'amazing library' where she reads and sleeps.

According to Holly, having a great day is not getting The Look from people. As 'a minor w/o a parent' she's not allowed in shelters. She adopts a street mom, Louise Palmer, who wears an ID tag around her neck, as 'her ticket into a shelter'. She makes up a story about Louise, who she is and where she's from, and while tending to her hair, 'I pretended that the comb was a magic comb, and that it was untangling all the knots in her life. All the things that had confused her and hurt her and made her crazy, my magic comb was pulling them out.' Holly is nervous when she sees cops cruising, as she would rather defend herself 'against a man with a stick than a social worker with good intentions'.

Recalling Ms. Leone's lessons on the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman, Holly journals, 'I'd give anything to find an underground railroad for runaways ... to not be so scared and hungry and afraid of being caught ... I've got six more years to go before I can get a job and rent an apartment and buy real food ... Am I really going to keep doing this for six more years?' She lives under bridges, in caves, in alleys, lifting edible items and toiletry from stores, scrounging through garbage cans, dealing with weather and rude people. In a market she sees a youngster in a wheelchair, and it hits her, 'how ungrateful I've been. I can walk, I'm healthy ... I've got a lot more than I think I do. Why is what you do have so much harder to see than what you don't?' Holly realizes too that journaling brought home her anger and pain, and made her feel 'less alone ... like I had someone to talk to'.

Wendelin Van Draanen begins Holly's story lightly, then delves mentally and emotionally deeper. Van Draanen, who kept a journal after a family tragedy of her own, tells us that 'Writing started as a way to sort through my feelings and frustrations, but grew into something I enjoyed for its own sake, and eventually became a new and rewarding career'. Runaway is a wake-up, heads-up story to all within the system - whether parents, educators, social workers, or other officials - and humanity in general. I recommend it as a tremendous, powerful read, after which you will never look at a homeless person in the same way again.

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