Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heather's Book Review: Blade Silver by Melody Carlson


Her father is verbally abusive. Her mother is an empty husk of a person, broken beneath her father’s words. Now, refusing to suffer under her father any longer, her brother has run away from home, infuriating her father even further and causing him to take out his anger on her. Ruth Wallace’s situation is a rough one. She has no idea how to cope with it, and so she tries to control her pain in the only way she knows how. She cuts herself.


Blade Silver by Melody Carlson tells the story of Ruth’s struggle with cutting—her many reasons for doing it, her struggle to hide it from even her closest friends, and eventually, the steps she takes to help herself put her razors away for good.


Self-mutilation is a sensitive topic for several reasons. One is that people who don’t “get” self-mutilation tend to condescend to it like it’s a superficial problem, and thus an easy one to fix (After all, how hard could it be to simply not cut oneself?). Another is that teens who participate in it feel utterly belittled by this sentiment, in addition to feeling belittled by the personal embarrassment that they feel toward their activities, in further addition to whatever deeper troubles they’re experiencing that are causing them to self-mutilate in the first place. It’s such a multilayered problem that there’s absolutely no comfortable way to bring it up. Fortunately, Blade Silver is a step in the right direction, a (mostly) good book to hand to (most) anyone who either is or knows a cutter, and wants to overcome that.


Blade Silver is a quick, easy read (in terms of writing style), but its real strength is found in Carlson’s handling of its subject matter. Carlson treats Ruth and her problems with respect. This book isn’t an afterschool special where Ruth cuts herself once and then dies to teach readers that cutting is bad. It’s a believable look at a teenage girl whose life reflects that of many teens in similar situations. It’s by no means a comfortable read.  Ruth’s father made me wince every time he spoke, and the descriptions of Ruth’s cutting process were visceral enough to make me cringe. Some objection has been raised about the latter element, reasonably, as the novel could be easily taken as a how-to manual for cutting by the reader who wishes to interpret it that way. The relevant scenes are as specific as to detail the clever methods Ruth uses to hide her razors, what depth of cut she finds to produce the best result, etc., and this is important to keep in mind when recommending the book to a teen who might be inclined to cut. However, overshadowing this darker element is the book’s realistic representation of the tensions experienced by a self-mutilating teen. It’s genuine enough that a sympathetic reader could—even without finishing the book—understand the anxieties that would make a teen want to voluntarily harm herself. The book also closes with a Reader’s Guide that features questions useful for encouraging critical thinking about the many facets of Ruth’s conflict, which is ultimately the purpose of this book—to let cutters know that there is hope to be found outside cutting, and to show those around cutters what goes through a cutter’s mind.


Still, for all its positive points, the book does have some problems. Ruth is the only well-developed character in this novel, but that’s excusable, being that it’s a story about her personal struggle in a book intended to help teens fight their way through their own similar struggle. A bit less excusable is the ending, in which Ruth finds God and then goes home to a situation that is distinctly happier than her previous one. Granted, this seems like an absurd thing to say about a Christian book written by one of the most prolific YA Christian authors out there, but in the context of the story itself, this ending feels entirely out of place. A few references are made to God early in the novel, mostly in a “My friend is Christian, but I don’t know much about it” way on Ruth’s part, and 98% of the book is spent focusing on Ruth’s personal struggle, not her religious beliefs (or lack of them). The book doesn’t even read like a conspicuously Christian book until its last 2%, when God swoops in like a literal deus ex machina and solves many of Ruth’s problems. Christian readers will not have a problem with this, but so much of the book’s hopeful ending is rooted in Ruth’s abrupt discovery of God that non-Christian readers are likely to feel defeated by it (especially the non-Christian readers who were looking for an actual solution to a problem they might be going through themselves). The ending is not entirely rainbows and unicorns, as Ruth does acknowledge that she still has some work to do if she’s to stop cutting entirely, but I would have liked it to offer a more grounded solution, in addition to Ruth’s spiritual awakening.


Ultimately, though, Blade Silver provides a solid look into the mind of a teen self-mutilator, and despite its mostly fairy tale ending, offers valuable food for thought, no matter what relation the reader has to its subject matter.


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