All of the survival challenges I've been faced with so far in my life were about on the level of the time I locked myself in my basement without a cellphone. I'm not a danger-seeker, and I've always been a little suspicious of people who are. But those forced to struggle for their very survival — due to the cruelty of others, or freak weather, or strange twists of fate — earn my unqualified awe, an awe that multiplies exponentially when the people thus tested are teenagers or even mere children. Here are three electrifying stories of very young people surviving very bad things.
Peter Rock's My Abandonment takes its inspiration from the true story of a young girl discovered living with her father in a makeshift hidden shelter in Portland, Ore.'s Forest Park. In Rock's novel, 13-year-old Caroline fully accepts her charismatic father's dictum that they live in isolation and hiding, trusting no one but each other. Yet the crystalline ingenuousness of Caroline's voice increasingly reveals "Father" as a paranoid megalomaniac who may be a danger to her. Rock enters so fully into the lonely and impoverished existence of Caroline and Father that we have to remind ourselves that My Abandonment isn't a lost girl's journal but a work of fiction, an astonishing imagining of unimaginable lives.
Like My Abandonment, Francisco Goldman's The Ordinary Seaman makes riveting fiction of miserable fact, in this case the abuse of a group of Central American sailors held captive in Brooklyn. The title character is Esteban, a 19-year-old veteran of the war in Nicaragua. Devastated by combat and the death of a girl soldier he'd loved, Esteban thinks he has nothing to lose, but when he travels to Brooklyn to take a job as a sailor aboard a ship called the Urus, he finds he was wrong. The Urus is a wreck, and its crew, all fellow penniless Central Americans, are now virtual prisoners, charged with the impossible task of repairing the ship. Nearly as marooned as they'd be on a desert island, the would-be sailors feast their eyes on the lights of Manhattan, while freezing and starving, until at last Esteban strikes out to seek help. His eventual triumph, so hard-won, is a triumph for us all.
One can only hope that Marianne Wiggins' John Dollar isn't based on a true story. Well-characterized by one prominent critic as the sort of descent into hell so irresistible we feel the urge to repeat it, John Dollar follows a group of little girls, some barely older than toddlers, who after being shipwrecked on a wild remote island are driven to commit shocking acts to survive. That Wiggins herself described the book as "a kind of female Lord of the Flies" should give the reader fair warning of what lies ahead. But rest assured: Despite the fact that Wiggins cites her own antecedents for the book, John Dollar is an absolute original, a book you will find yourself unable to put down, even if, on some pages, you want to.
All three of these books are in part, and very much by design, harrowing. But all three are that much more transforming of us as readers — especially if the worst thing that we've ever encountered was getting locked in the basement.
Susan Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and her second, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. She is also co-editor with David Remnick of the anthology Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.