My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Goodreads: Fourteen-year-old Kentucky girl Ricki Jo Winstead, who would prefer to be called Ericka, thank you very much, is eager to shed her farmer's daughter roots and become part of the popular crowd at her small town high school. She trades her Bible for Seventeen magazine, buys new "sophisticated" clothes and somehow manages to secure a tenuous spot at the cool kids table. She's on top of the world, even though her best friend and the boy next door Luke says he misses "plain old Ricki Jo."
Caught between being a country girl and wannabe country club girl, Ricki Jo begins to forget who she truly is: someone who doesn't care what people think and who wouldn't let a good-looking guy walk all over her. It takes a serious incident out on Luke's farm for Ricki Jo to realize that being a true friend is more important than being popular.
While I was reading: I thought this was a cute book that had all of the elements for a great after school special. Plain country girl, wants to be popular, meets hot new guy, gets in with popular friends, best friend is a guy, makes cheer squad and everybody knows that in the end she'll get burned and go back to her roots, right? Maybe not exactly like that but something similar. The truth is that it was extremely painful for an author to relive my freshman year for me in detail, hitting my own popularity quest spot on sans Wolf and alcohol. I didn't do the drinking thing.
When I was finished: I realized the book was a carefully disguised book about bullying and societal tolerance. I was totally swept up in the Ericka story and the painful reminders that I only put the pieces together at the end and recognized the brilliance of it. The book carefully addresses different kinds of bullying, the way society tolerates it, and the way one person can make a difference. Just to clarify, Ericka/Ricky Jo does not do the stand-up-at-a-school-assembly and give a shame-on-you speech. It's not cheesy like that.
Traditional domestic bullying involves Luke's father. He's an alcoholic and it is established early on that he beats Luke's mother. The children are all uncomfortable with this arrangement but, in the past, they've all been too powerless and small to make a difference. It is ignored. Ricky Jo recognizes what it is and takes her cues from Luke.
Symbolic bullying that mirrors a couple of the situations is the Gumbel's dogs. They are wild and ferocious. When they are not chained up, they attack random people. Ricky Jo is instructed to never show fear. They can smell fear and, as a pack, might attack. There is foreshadowing as Ricky Jo rides her bike to Luke's and finds herself pinned under the bike as the dogs circle. She is saved by Luke who hears the ruckus and beats them away. Again, many people know about the dogs but hesitate to rock the boat because the Gumbels are so mean, themselves. Without giving away the story, this situation escalates and damage is done before it is resolved. More foreshadowing, by the way.
On the first day of school, Ricky Jo/Ericka finds herself with a group of pretty and popular girls who are all cheerleaders. She's just a redneck but they take her on as a project. Note the pack-like behavior. Then Wolf saunters in. He's beautiful, athletic, rich and a royal pain in the butt. He has his good qualities but these are hidden in his obnoxious attempts to look cool (and fit in, like the rest of the grade). Wolf's antics embarrass and humiliate. It is interesting to watch how he bullies and manipulates through his many antics and how he is so quickly forgiven by many because he's "cool." At the same time, the reader sees through Ricky Jo's eyes how insecure he really is and how he does see areas not having to do with himself with incredible clarity.
The best examples of intimidation, manipulation and bullying are within the Fab Frenemies. There is feigning of a BFF club, guilt, giving special treatment to the "project," hiding cruel comments in back-handed compliments, ganging up on one, engaging in peer pressure to invoke behavior against her better judgment and beliefs, playing the best friend to someone's face while stabbing them in the back.
The story also redefines courage and friendship for Ricky Jo. The hero of the book is Luke. He recognizes the underdog and does whatever it takes to take a stand or step into the middle of the dogfight. I can't say more than that without explaining how he did this in different situations. He stands up for what is right both metaphorically and physically (he's the one who steps into the real dog attacks). He stays true to himself, never wavering, regardless of the cost.
As for Ricky Jo (one small spoiler), she saves herself.
Best nugget - In order to be a best friend, one has to first be a good friend.
This could be used in a high school literature class to demonstrate different masks of bullying.
Swearing - mild/moderate
Violence - moderate
Alcohol use - moderate
Sex - mild implied