BookBrowse Reviews A List of Cages by Robin Roe

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A List of Cages

by Robin Roe

A List of Cages by Robin Roe X
A List of Cages by Robin Roe
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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An exquisite, gripping story featuring two lionhearted characters.

Robin Roe has written one helluva young adult debut novel. Alternating first person narratives by a couple of adolescent boys striving to be and do the right thing in a world seemingly ill-suited to their needs feels all too familiar. And Roe's professional experience as a former counselor imbues the story with jarring grimness, taking an unblinking, behind-the-headlines look at child abuse.

Eighteen-year-old Adam Blake is riding the senior year zenith of his life. Never again will he be as popular, as trusted, as capable or as smart as he is now. Good grades come easily. He has a loyal group of mostly-together chums that party and lunch together. He has a savvy social worker (single) mom in whom he can confide and he drives a classic-if-forlorn set of wheels. What's more, he's landed a primo senior year "internship" as assistant to Dr. Whitlock, the school counselor. Mostly the job consists of sitting in her outer office returning texts – returning them, that is, unless he's trashed yet another cell phone his mom bought him. He goes through several a year, mainly due to being a rather antsy/clumsy ADHDer. Walking beside him in the school halls is described as, "like trying to keep up with something that has too much energy for its container. It fills the halls and ricochets against everyone."

Fourteen-year-old Julian Harlow seems a typical high school freshman, a fish out of water wearing ill-fitting clothes, whose grades are subpar and whose attendance is sketchy. He's so fond of his favorite children's superhero books that he either continually re-reads them or fantasizes about being the superhero. He has no car, no friends – and he also has no parents. Orphaned at age nine by his parents' fatal automobile accident, he currently lives with an uncle by marriage, Russell. Before going to live with Russell he was fostered for a year in Adam's home. He and Adam shared a room, secrets and Adam's caring mom. Even five years on, Julian is still shell-shocked by the earth shattering loss of his parents:

It's strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.

Julian has missed so many of his scheduled twice-weekly sessions with Dr. Whitlock that she's assigned Adam to retrieve and deliver the freshman. The reunion delights Adam because he felt like they had developed a real friendship before Julian moved out. Julian is less than thrilled, finding it hard to believe that Adam actually likes him. He dodges the counselor and his teachers because they ask hard questions, always asking what he thinks. "I know what I think, but people don't want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn't easy."

We find out soon enough that Russell is not just aloof, but is also emotionally and physically abusing Julian. The boy can't tell others about his home situation for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Russell has brainwashed him into believing that nobody could possibly like him. And it clearly must be so since Julian's sole means of survival is a man who can barely tolerate his presence. He also fears that if he is responsible for Russell getting into trouble, then retribution will be swift and horrible. So when Adam learns of the terror that is Julian's home, Julian begs him to keep his secret. Thus the smarter-than-grownups senior makes his first bad decision. From here on out it's a matter of me being torn between reading about things I'd probably rather not know and not wanting to miss Julian's salvation, Adam's redemption and Russell's comeuppance. And while A List of Cages is a young adult book, I highly recommend it for adults who work with young people to see how easily children who have no vocabulary for their abusive situations can so easily fall between the cracks of child welfare services. (See Beyond the Book.)

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in January 2017, and has been updated for the December 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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