Arlie’s version of normal is taking care of her drug-addicted mother, not going to school, living in motels or out of a car, and avoiding strangers who stare at her the burn scars she got in a meth-lab explosion. When her mother dies, everything changes. She’s back in school, living with an uncle she never even knew existed, and beginning a relationship with a boy who understands what it feels like to be different. Just as she’s starting to adjust to a new normal, her step-father (the man who’s caused her scars, both physical and emotional) turns up and threatens everything.
Burn Girl, by debut novelist Mandy Mikulencak is a quick read with lots of intrigue and drama. It’s got just the right amount of danger to appeal to the 13 and up age range without being overly graphic. The stakes are clearly high, and drive Arlie to act in ways that both aid and harm her new life.
While Arlie is a sympathetic character, the strength of this novel is in its supporting cast of characters. Arlie’s relationships are tested multiple times (not only by outside threats, but also by Arlie herself), and they manage to stay together. The two characters I like the most are Arlie’s uncle Frank and her friend Mo. Frank lovingly bumbles through becoming a first time father to a teenager. He is both funny and authoritative and I absolutely loved watching him and Arlie grow together. Mo is steadfast in her love for Arlie and supports her, even if it means disagreeing with her. If Mo existed in real life, I’d want her as a friend. I hope that all people in Arlie’s situation have such a supportive network of friends and family.
That being said, I can image this story with much more complication. Things resolve themselves relatively easily and while it makes sense that the novel ends when it does, Arlie recognizes that she still has work to do to accept herself, what has happened to her, and the life she lives now. Part of me wants to see that part of her story. But it would be a very different novel if it was all self-reflection instead of the high stakes conflict with Arlie’s step-father and, I guess, a good novel should leave you wanting more.
Final verdict: A quick, high-energy read worth picking up because of the great supporting cast of characters.