Elizabeth “Liz” Reid is fourteen-years-old and it seems she has the entire world on her young shoulders. She is at an age where she should be thinking about boys, her favorite rock bands and the upcoming homecoming game. She should be texting her friends, updating her Facebook page, keeping up her grades and getting involved with school activities. Yet, she is not and author Melanie Thorne expertly conveys Liz’s chaotic life in her debut novel Hand Me Down.
Liz’s mother has just gotten married to a recently released felon named Terrance. Terrance was in jail for being a sexual offender. Time in prison has hardly rehabilitated Terrance, and he is making odd advances at Liz, and may soon turn to Liz’s younger sister Jaime. Ironically, Liz’s mother Linda left her first husband, Liz and Jaime’s father, because he was an abusive alcoholic. She also works for a non-profit that aids abused women. You would think Liz’s mother would know better than to get involved with a man like Terrance, especially having young, vulnerable daughters at home.
So Liz is dealing with a sleazy and potentially dangerous stepfather, and mother who turns a blind eye to her new husband’s behavior. Now she has a new burden to bear—finding a new place to live. A court decree claims Liz and Jaime can’t live in the same home as a convicted sex offender. Linda isn’t going to give up Terrance for her daughters, especially since they had a child, Noah. Jamie chooses to live with her bio-dad and his girlfriend in their trailer home. Liz knows she can’t live with her father and works desperately to find a place to call home.
Initially Liz is shipped off to Terrance’s brother Gary’s home. This is hardly ideal for Liz considering Gary is related to her tormenter, and she can’t stop worrying about Jaime. Liz also spends time living with a neighbor. Later Liz moves in with her bio-dad’s sister and her religious and very strict family. This living arrangement doesn’t quite work out either.
Liz soon moves in with her mother’s sister, Tammy, in Utah. Tammy seems like the ideal guardian. She has a successful career. She is kind and empathetic. She listens intently to Liz’s ideas, opinions and fears. She provides a refuge Liz truly needs. For the first time in ages, Liz feels a sense of place and starts to feel better about herself and her future, especially after she makes friends at her new high school.
However, life isn’t perfect at Aunt Tammy’s. Liz has to deal with Tammy’s boyfriend who is a bit of a condescending jerk and isn’t thrilled to have this young interloper taking up his girlfriend’s time and devotion. And Liz misses Jaime, and yes, even her mother, even though Linda’s co-dependent devotion to Terrance feels like betrayal to Liz.
Will Liz’s stay with Tammy be temporary too? Will Liz ever find a place she can truly call home? And by home I don’t mean a physical house, a roof over Liz’s head. What Liz needs most is a sense of security, stability, and to realize she is a valuable human being worthy of the best life has to offer. Instead, she’s being passed around amongst various relatives who for the most part treat her like she’s an unwanted piece of furniture, yes, a hand me down.
I found myself riveted by Liz’s plight from the moment I opened Hand Me Down until I read the last word. Liz is character you definitely root for. Whereas far too many writers portray teenage girls as vacuous, materialistic and air-headed Kardashian-wannabes (Meg Haston, I’m looking in your direction), Thorne writes about Liz in a style that that is so nuanced and dimensional. Yes, Liz is a victim of circumstances beyond her control. But she is also at turns wise beyond her years and tough as nails. Her unique voice deserves to be heard. I found myself both sympathizing with Liz and cheering her on.
And Liz isn’t the only character Thorne writes about with a great deal of dimension. Sure, I wanted to yell at Liz’s mother for choosing Terrance over her daughters, but I also wanted to find out why she did this, especially after finding the bravery to divorce her first husband. Just what is the story behind the story?
Hand Me Down was not an easy read; family dysfunction and abuse are hardly cheerful topics. But Hand Me Down ended up being a very important read that never made Liz’s plight look melodramatic or like an episode of “Jerry Springer.” Melanie Thorne is an immensely talented writer and one whose literary voice I hope to read again.