Lessons From a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles: Book Review
By Jo Knowles
I’m planning to review Ms. Knowles’s newest book, Jumping off Swings, on Monday, but I wanted to review her first book, Lessons from a Dead Girl, first. It’s been two years since I read Lessons from a Dead Girl, which seemed shocking when I first read it. After revisiting it, it isn't much less so, now. Though Jumping off Swings also tackles a serious issue, it was much easier to read.
Lessons from a Dead Girl begins with the violent death of Leah, who’d been 17-year old Laine’s best friend and worst enemy for the past seven years. When the book opens, Laine both hates Leah for what she did to her, but also feels guilty and responsible for Leah’s death. Written in short chapters, each with a title in which Leah teaches Laine a “Lesson,” Lessons from a Dead Girl is a uniquely told story about friend abuse.
At the beginning of their friendship, Laine can’t understand why beautiful, popular Leah would single her out, choosing her as her best friend. After all, by comparison, Laine was shy and awkward. But it isn’t long before Leah is taking Laine into Laine’s closet where they play secret kissing and touching games. Leah tells Laine it’s practice for when they’re with a boy. Laine is pretty sure that other girls don’t do it, and is both aroused by and ashamed of their behavior.
Once they start high school, Leah’s abuse ends as Leah begins to date boys and act out in ever more self-destructive ways, leading to her ultimate demise. But before that happens, Leah holds what the girls did together over Laine’s head, spreading rumors that Laine initiated the sex games, and that she was a lesbian. Poor Laine is totally confused. Does she prefer girls to boys? If she does, Leah made her that way. Laine begins to hate Leah, but at the same time, the truth about Leah having been sexually abused by an older male family friend comes out. Leah spitefully tells Laine that she never enjoyed what she’d done with Laine, but had done it to hurt her, as she’d been hurt.
I am in awe of Ms. Knowles’s skill in shedding light on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse in this haunting story. Fortunately, Leah had a final lesson for Laine: “The truth belongs to you.” Once Laine heard and understood the truth, it was for her to create the meaning she would give it. Fortunately, she was able to put it behind her and move on with her life. Regrettably, the same could not be said of Leah.