Monday, September 20, 2021

My Sorrow Mi Libertad - Robin Harwick

This is a novella aimed at young adults written by an American Ph.D. and based on the experience of people she worked with who wanted their stories told. I found it a curious book to read as I'm not entirely sure who it's aimed at, in places the language felt too formal to be right for a young adult audience, and there's a consciously educational edge to it that blurs the sense of it being fiction. The structure is also quite episodic, so it made sense that it was made up of multiple people's experiences, but had the effect of making some parts of the plot seem a little disjointed, and I kept wondering if it was staying too true to case notes.

That said, the disjointed feel makes sense in terms of the heroine's life, which is constantly being thrown off balance so in some ways it really works. There's also a bit of a disconnect for a British reader trying to understand the American welfare system. 

I think our care systems are probably similar, young people are certainly extremely vulnerable in them in both countries, and education is moving closer to an American model, especially post-secondary school where courses are increasingly expensive. The big differences come with health care and attitudes towards homelessness though. And of the two it's the homeless situation that really shocks me because at least the differences in health care are well discussed. 

Obviously, homelessness is an issue here, and so is begging, but as bad as it is we have nothing like the tent cities that are described - we don't get the weather conditions that Seattle does either, and the idea that people are expected to live like that with no hope of help is a lot to comprehend in a rich nation. We don't have quite the same opioid crisis as America either - so altogether there's a lot to disturb here.

The story centers around Didi, maybe just 15 when the book starts, and sofa surfing whilst her mother is meant to be getting her life together (she's homeless and hooked on heroin, so Didi is trying to give her some space). Social services eventually catch up with her after her school intervenes and she ends up in the foster system, but as a teenager has no chance of getting a place with a family. Instead, she ends up in group homes that she hates, and which become increasingly restrictive as she keeps running away. There's a spell of living on the street with other kids, and then eventually a more hopeful situation with some support and continuity. 

The strengths of the book are in how it shows how easily almost any of us could end up in a similar situation - especially without an NHS to patch us up. Finding a job without an address or a bank account is really hard, and so it goes on. Once you fall between the cracks it's very hard to pull yourself up again. The way Didi comes across as both capable and very vulnerable is excellent too. As the book progresses the problems her chaotic life has created for her become more apparent.

This was a quick and compelling book to read, and definitely a good place to start if you want to discuss issues around homelessness, immigration, the care system, education, and health, with younger people. For UK readers it serves as a stark warning for how much worse some things could be if we don't take care of what's left of the welfare state.

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