The Girl In the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers; Algonquin Young Readers, 224 pages, $16.95. Ages 8 to 12.
The inimitable voice of 11-year-old Kammie Summers is not one you will soon forget – in turns wise, sad, hopeful, frightened, hilarious. She is speaking from the depths of an abandoned well where she has fallen during a fake “initiation” into Mandy/Kandy/Sandy’s club of popular girls at her new school. After some half-hearted attempts to help (including spitting gum into Kammie’s hair), the girls leave and Rivers offers a maestro performance of Kammie riffing, in her solitude and terror, in a stream-of-consciousness narrative, on the physical discomfort of being stuck in the well with its bad air and bad smells (“I slide a few more inches, my peeled-back skin rubbing even more on the gritty wall. I’m being peeled. I’m meat. Or a potato.”) wondering if she will ever be rescued and her random thoughts on friends, bullies, being poor, guilt, school, her parents, her brother, death, God, her dog. Gradually the terrible story of how she got to this place emerges: Kammie, the girl who took ice skating lessons and lived in a nice house in New Jersey, became Kammie, the girl living in a trailer in a depressing Texas town (“We don’t even have a bathtub in our new place, only a really terrible, rust-dripping shower that smells like cat pee and broken hearts”) after her father was sent to prison for embezzling from a children’s cancer charity. Rivers does a masterful job describing Kammie’s free-floating thoughts, from the pain and terror of being stuck below ground, the damage to her favorite cutoff jeans, the sneaker that falls off that she can’t afford to replace, previous humiliations at the hands of Mandy/Kandy/Sandy, her regret that she didn’t follow her mother’s advice and make friends with the weird kids. As time passes and she starts to show the effects of oxygen deprivation, her thoughts grow even more disjointed as she imagines she has company in the well, of a French-speaking coyote and possibly, zombie goats. (“I sigh hard and choke on the silver dust and Lassie does not come for me and no one barks in any language and I’m alone in a well and I’m going to die. Well. Well, well, well, I’m in a well. Something is crawling on my foot.”) Rivers says her novel was inspired by the story of Baby Jessica, who was rescued from a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987.
– Jean Westmoore
Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way: A Novel by William M. Akers; Regan Arts, 218 pages, $18.99.
This wickedly subversive novel, told entirely from the point of view of the villain – a German woman who worships “beautiful, delightful order” and browbeats her colleagues, children and their parents into submission – is set almost entirely in a fourth-grade classroom (of the McKegway School for Clever and Gifted Children) and is the first in a series “The Amazing Escapades of Toby Wilcox.” Toby, a new student at McKegway, runs afoul of his teacher immediately, and through his “private journal,” the reader can only watch in fascination as he plots his revenge. Akers, a screenwriter, has found a hilarious voice in Leni Ravenbach, sprinkling the narrative with German words (helpfully including a glossary at the end) and adding a German inflection as in: “So few Americans had the good breeding … They are so sloppy about everything. Dungarees, tracksuits, sweatpants! It’s astounding they could put a man on the moon!” Mrs. Ravenbach is somewhat reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s evil Agnes Trunchbull in “Matilda.” Akers offers an “undedication” to, among others, his sixth-grade English teacher and “awful teachers everywhere, may you boil in oil and your eyes melt and run down your face.”
– Jean Westmoore