I was surpised at how much I enjoyed this book, given how young the protagonist is. But Fishkill isn't your average middle-grader, and this is definitely not a middle-grade book, despite the main character being only twelve.
Being Fishkill offers a starkly realistic portrait of what it is like to live in poverty in modern America. It also offers a glimmer of hope as Fishkill finds a friend, and with her, a new kind of family.
Fishkill is a strong, painfully realistic character who refuses to to take crap from anyone. Whether she's getting what she needs with her fists or her cunning, she refuses to just lie down and die. She refuses to believe her life is going to continue to be as difficult and deprived as it has been in the past.
And then she makes a new friend in Duck-Duck. Duck-Duck pretends to be tough, but has all the advantages Fishkill doesn't - a mother who cares, a warm house, food on the table. Fishkill loves being friends with Duck-Duck, partly for her imagination and daring, but partly also for the food and a chance to be in a real home for a period of time.
When Duck-Duck's mother starts asking too many probing questions, Fishkill is forced to admit the truth, something that leads to something resembling a stable family life, if unconventional. For a short time, Fishkill starts to dare dream her life might turn out better than she imagined possible. But when her unstable mother returns unexpectedly, she brings chaos and tragedy with her, and nothing in Fishkill's life will ever be the same.
This is a strking, tragic book that deals with some difficult subject matter. Fishkill is an endearing protagonist and the author manages to keep everything firmly in her worldview, leaving out the things a girl her age wouldn't notice or understand. I particularly liked the tentative way Fishkill and Duck-Duck began exploring their sexuality without it even being remarked on in any real way because at that age, they wouldn't have recognized that's what they were doing.
It isn't always an easy read in that the subject matter is difficult, but if you're feeling strong and have a few tissues handy, I definitely recommend this one.
But don't just believe me. Here's the blurb:
Born in the backseat of a moving car, Carmel Fishkill was unceremoniously pushed into a world that refuses to offer her security, stability, love. At age thirteen, she begins to fight back. Carmel Fishkill becomes Fishkill Carmel, who deflects her tormenters with a strong left hook and conceals her secrets from teachers and social workers. But Fishkill’s fierce defenses falter when she meets eccentric optimist Duck-Duck Farina, and soon they, along with Duck-Duck’s mother, Molly, form a tentative family, even as Fishkill struggles to understand her place in it. This fragile new beginning is threatened by the reappearance of Fishkill’s unstable mother — and by unfathomable tragedy. Poet Ruth Lehrer’s young adult debut is a stunning, revelatory look at what defines and sustains “family.” And, just as it does for Fishkill, meeting Duck-Duck Farina and her mother will leave readers forever changed.