After her mother OD'd, Holly was shuffled from one foster home to another. Some were much worse than others. The one she's in now is not as bad as some -- it's a roof over her head and food in her stomach. But when she's not in school, they mostly keep her locked in the laundry room. (Don't get me wrong -- she isn't grateful. She knows that it's a rotten situation -- but she also knows that it could be much, much worse.)
She recognizes the way that Mr. Bender looks at her, too, and she doesn't trust anyone -- especially Social Services -- enough to ask for help.
At school, a teacher tries to reach out to Holly by giving her a journal. Holly's response:
Well, I'm trying it, see? And is it making me feel better? NO! Giving me this journal was a totally lame thing to do. You think writing will get me out of here? You think words will make me forget about the past? Get real, Ms. Leone!
Words can't fix my life.
Words can't give me a family.
Words can't do jack.
After an especially ugly incident with Mr. Bender, Holly packs it in and runs away. But, as she puts it in her journal:
Oh, and one more thing--I've decided I'm not homeless.
I'm a gypsy. I'm a gypsy and my home is the great outdoors.
Runaway chronicles Holly's journey across the country, by train, bus and horse trailer. It isn't just a story about homelessness -- because, regardless of what Holly tells herself, she is homeless and she knows it -- it's an urban survival story. Think Gary Paulsen, but with a female protagonist in the city.
Finding food and finding shelter can be just as difficult in LA as in the Canadian wilderness. Holly doesn't have to stare down wild animals -- she has to stare down other people, who are often bigger and older and scarier than she is. She has to stay ahead of Social Services, who are undoubtedly trying to track her down. And she has to find a permanent home. Until then, as much as she doesn't want to admit it, her lifelines are her journal and Ms. Leone's poetry worksheet.
It's a rough one, though I think that emotionally, it might be harder on older readers than younger ones. Holly's sexual abuse is only alluded to -- younger readers might not pick up on it -- I think that they'll read it as a straight survival story.*
As a huge Sammy Keyes fan, I thought of her a lot as I read this -- because, well, heck. Sammy and Holly are the same age, are both smart and resourceful. They were both abandoned. With a few unlucky breaks, Holly's story could have been Sammy's.**
I'd say it's geared twelve-up, towards older Sammy fans. There's no profanity that I can remember, but there are some scary moments and, as I mentioned before, hints of sexual abuse. I'd definitely also give it to fans of survival stories and maybe to kids who constantly re-read the Pelzer books.
*Rather like the Coraline phenomenon -- have you noticed that younger kids read that one as an adventure story, while grown-ups read it as super-creepy horror?
**Remember that Buffy episode where Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale and then you find out how Buffy would have turned out without her network of friends? It's like that.