Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Printz Award Winner: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Rosoff, Meg. (2004). How I Live Now. New York, NY: Wendy Lamb Books.    
Plot Summary: Getting away from her life in New York seemed easy for fifteen-year-old Daisy.  All she needed to do was agree to fly half-way around the world to England to live with her aunt and four cousins.  But, after a few weeks of living in the English country-side a war breaks out that leaves no life untouched.  Despite the chaos and horrors of war, Daisy must find the courage and strength to stay alive or risk losing everything and everyone she has come to love.

Critical Analysis: With a starred review from Booklist, Rosoff’s novel, How I Live Now  is “the ominous prognostication of what a third world war might look like, and the opportunity it provides for teens to imagine themselves, like Daisy, exhibiting courage and resilience in roles traditionally occupied by earlier generations.”  A review by Kirkus, described the novel as “a very relatable contemporary story, told in honest, raw first-person and filled with humor, love, pathos, and carnage.” In addition to its realistic approach to a third world war, Publisher’s Weekly noted that, "Readers will emerge from the rubble much shaken, a little wiser, and with perhaps a greater sense of humanity."  More rave reviews come from readers, such as “Carrie” from Amazon who found that “Daisy's voice comes to you right as if she is talking and thinking, true and real and heartbreaking.” Told through the voice (and ramblings) of an American teenager, life has never really been normal for fifteen-year-old Elizabeth or “Daisy” as she likes to be called. After learning that her mother died giving birth to her, Daisy has never been able to forgive herself and her father hasn’t been much help.  After her uncaring stepmother gets pregnant, Daisy’s father agrees to send her away to live with her mother’s sister and four cousins – unable to deal with Daisy’s eating disorder and the demands of his new wife.  Eager to get away from her troubles in New York, Daisy discovers a new way of simple living in the English country-side.   But, as a third world war erupts everything changes and Daisy’s life is suddenly thrown into chaos. Torn away from an improper relationship with her cousin Edmond, it takes everything in Daisy’s power to keep from falling apart.  A new-found courage is all Daisy has to keep going, but it’s her determination to find Edmond again that gives her the strength to survive.  Rosoff does an amazing job of bringing the reader into Daisy’s mind and the revealing the thoughts and emotions of a young teenage girl who is horrified of losing almost all the people she has come to adore in her short stay in England.  How I Live Now takes you to war and brings you face-to-face with all the horrors and tragedies that come along with it.  It also reveals the power of hope in the midst of total chaos and despair. 

The plot of the story is emotionally driven from beginning to end.  When the war begins, Daisy’s Aunt Penn becomes stranded in Oslo, leaving Daisy and her four cousins, Piper, Edmond, Osbert, and Isaac alone for several weeks.  However, the children don’t panic at all. They are quite comfortable being their own bosses and waiting for their mom to return.  This is when Daisy and Edmond start to develop feelings for each other.  Rosoff does a good job of bringing the reader into the mind of a teenager girl coming to grips with feelings for a cousin she should see as a brother.  This is apparent when she said, “after a few minutes he lay back and let his knee rest against my knee and I got another one of those feelings you’re not supposed to get from your cousin and I wondered very quietly to myself What Was Happening Here…” (p44).  Their relationship builds slowly, but once their feelings are clear to each other they begin a relationship and although it’s not a healthy one you feel sorry for their situation.  Even after the bombing in other cities, life is still rather normal for the children until the soldiers come and “occupy” the house.  That is when everything changes and the children are separated.  Daisy and Piper are sent off to another house occupied by soldiers, while Edmond and Isaac are sent farther north to a different location. As the war worsens, the reader is taken on a journey through Daisy’s eyes that is shocking, terrifying and utterly tragic.  This is heartbreakingly displayed when Daisy and Piper finally reach the place where Edmond and Isaac are supposed to be and all they find is death.  Daisy gives the raw truth of it when she says, “when you hear people say something smells like death trust them because that’s the only way to describe what it smells like, putrid and rotting and so foul your stomach tries to vault out through your throat and if your brain has any sense it wants to jump out of your skill and run away as fast as possible with or without the rest of you so it doesn’t have to find out what’s making that smell” (p. 140-141).  

The character development of Daisy is beautifully displayed.  At the beginning of the war she was still the same self-centered teenager that didn’t care too much about what was going on outside of her little world.  This is apparent when she says, “No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed…the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that WE REALLY DIDN’T CARE.” (p 43-42).  This can be true for anyone, as most people do not come to grips with the tragedies of war unless it touches them or someone they care about.  However, as the novel progresses and Daisy’s circumstances become more and more desperate she mentally and emotionally has to deal with everything falling apart around her.  It was a coping mechanism for Daisy, which was the only way for her to maintain her sanity.  This is evident when she comes into contact with her first real scene of death and says, “…I could see that some of the bodies were human and then a kind of coldness came over me and no matter what I discovered I wasn’t going to scream or cry or anything. I was ice.” (p.141).

Although the lack of commas and frequent run-on sentences does distract the reader at times, Rosoff’s novel is an emotional story of the horrors of war, deep despair, shattered lives, and the power of hope.  This book is highly recommended for middle-school students and above.

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