Through my long voracious reading habits, I continue to find that writers can generally be classified in one of two groups: fine literary writers or terrific storytellers. Because the skill set and high level of artistry required is quite different for each group, rarely do the two groups meet and mesh. But Nevada Barr stands neatly balanced, with one foot inside each of these two groups. She is a fine writer, with literary finesse, and she is one heck of a storyteller.
Barr kept me awake with her storytelling, but not before messing with my head a bit, along with my sleep patterns. When I first opened the cover of 13 ½, I was thrown into a horrific scene of sexual molestation. Polly, a girl not yet nine years old, is being raped by her mother’s whiskey-chugging boyfriend. Rather than protect and defend her daughter, Polly’s alcoholic mother gets jealous and angry with her. Too frequently, this scenario is all too real. Victims become victimizers, and Polly’s mother, her own self-esteem nonexistent, allows her daughter to become victimized. At such a very tender age, this child understands the male psyche far beyond what she should.
Enter another main character: Butcher Boy. This child, Dylan, wakes into a family massacre, his parents murdered with an axe, his baby sister dead, his older brother badly wounded. He alone is whole, however dazed. Eleven years old, he is dragged to court and prosecuted for the vicious murder of his family. The boy hardly seems able to function as his mind and emotions shut down under the weight of something so immense, so incomprehensible. Only his surviving brother stands by him.
Barr does a wonderful job of describing a juvenile justice system that is highly dysfunctional. Children who end up in juvenile delinquent homes, more often than not already coming from abusive homes, are often subjected to more abuse by the very staff who is supposed to help them rehabilitate. Reality, alas, matches fiction, and Barr has shone an important spotlight on a growing problem in our society. Dylan is thrown away, with no one caring enough to deal with his problems, and he spends years in a world where guards beat and rape little boys, psychologists and social workers conduct unethical experiments on their young prey, and wardens look the other way. The only person left who seems to care that Dylan is even alive is his brother Rich.
Another character to whom we are introduced is the Woman in Red. She reads Tarot-cards and is big, and loud, and impossible to miss. Almost no one notices that inside this woman is complete emotional devastation—another victim of abuse. Barr excels in her literary descriptions when Polly and this woman meet.
Although I do have to confess here that I had the mystery solved long before the conclusion of the novel, it did not slow my eager reading by one half of a page turn. I did not want to miss any of Barr’s pulsing-with-life descriptions, deep dives into the most shadowy parts of human nature, and the intricacies of dance between victim and victimizer. I wanted to see justice done. And I wanted to read exactly how Barr would put it into words. The images she created are lasting long beyond the final page. The important messages she illustrates remain even longer: abuse of any kind causes unspeakable damage, and those of us who do nothing about a broken juvenile justice system, or the increase of domestic violence, or look past the suffering of the battered, make such crime possible. This novel is more than a thriller.