Body of Water – Sarah Dooley

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Body of Water is a YA book that could work as well for middle grade readers. It deals with homelessness, poverty, disaster and the meaning of friendship. Sarah Dooley opens her novel with the devastating fire that destroyed the Goforth-Shooks’ trailer in their trailer park. Ember, twelve, her seven-year-old sister Ivy and her mother and father are safe but Ember’s dog, Widdershins is missing and they have saved nothing from the fire.

The family is Wiccan or Pagan—mom reads Tarot and dad has converted, which effectively alienates him from his devout Christian mother. Their beliefs do nothing to endear them to their neighbors in the trailer park either. One of those neighbors likely set the fire—and it may have been Ember’s best friend Anson. They go overnight from poor-scraping-by to poor-living-in-tents-in-a-campground with one set of clothes each. Ember’s donated sweat pants and tee shirt don’t fit, her bra is two sizes too small and the ancient penny loafers she finds in the discard box in a church basement give her blisters.

Her heart is broken but she has to keep up a front for Ivy and for the mother and father who find no work. There is a daily scramble for loose change to pay the campsite fee and buy bologna and donuts to fill up empty bellies. Ember floats in the campground lake, a manmade recreation feature that drowned a small town, as a way to leave the reality of her life behind and grab a few moments of peace. She determines never to make another friend and spins the tallest tales to keep the other kids in the campground at bay.

Every week her college student brother picks her up outside the camp for a clandestine visit to the ruins of her home. She hunts for Widdershins in vain and salvages scraps of junk from the ashes to prepare a spell that will curse the boy who set the fire. Ember manages to function pretty well, despite her self-imposed isolation and the circumstances, but as the summer winds down she is drawn into very cautious friendships with a few other kids. One family won’t admit it but they seem to be living in the campground fulltime, just like the Goforth-Shooks.

Body of Water explores many of the simpler rituals of Wiccan belief and makes an indirect case for empathy and tolerance. The family is in denial and in terrible straits. Everyone keeps important secrets from each other. Ember misses her old best friend and her beloved dog. The resolution of the dilemmas isn’t neat and comforting. Some very good surprises happen and some changes come about reluctantly. Nature and the elements aren’t finished with the Goforth-Shooks and they are still nomads at the end of the book—although more hopeful ones this time. Ember rediscovers her open heart and chooses blessings over curses.

The sadness of the circumstances in the story is offset by the resilience of the children. But it reads like a true tale and so stands as a fictional indictment of how we ignore and marginalize people who are victims of disasters. Body of Water humanizes the inconceivable challenges of a poor kid who maintains a strong sense of self despite a relentlessly hostile and indifferent world.

Body of Water   Sarah Dooley | Feiwel and Friends   2011

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