By Ekta R. Garg
April 17, 2019
Genre: YA fiction
Release date: April 9, 2019
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
When her only parent dies without warning, a teen finds herself at the mercy of the foster care system. She’ll have to learn how to navigate new relationships and come up with a new definition of normal. Author Kathleen Glasgow brings her own personal experiences to aching reality in the wrenching but somewhat incomplete novel How to Make Friends with the Dark.
Sixteen-year-old Grace “Tiger” Tolliver just wants to hang out with her friends and survive school. The school part’s easy: with her best friend Katerina, or Cake, Tiger has gotten through every single day of academic torture from the third grade to their current status as sophomores. Lately, too, she’s attracted the attention of her crush; Kai, her partner in science class, has just asked her to the upcoming dance.
The rest of life, though, is a problem. Tiger is an only child to single parent, June, and June keeps Tiger on a tight leash. Tiger loves her mother, but she wishes—often—that June would loosen up a little. It doesn’t help that Tiger has no idea who her father is and that June refuses to talk about him. If Tiger had a dad or siblings, she’d have someone to commiserate with or at least someone who could take June’s attention off her for just a minute. But, nope. It’s just Tiger and June.
Until it’s not. June dies from an unexpected medical incident, and Tiger finds herself spiraling through the various stages of grief. It only gets worse as she learns that because she’s a minor and has no known relatives, she automatically becomes a ward of the state. Despite the fact that Cake’s mother, Rhonda, volunteers to take Tiger in, the social worker holds hard to the line.
Within days of her mother’s death, Tiger moves from one foster home to the next. The children she meets introduce her to the darker sides of life. At least Tiger knew her mother loved her and would do everything to make her happy. She’s at a loss for words when she hears stories about parental abuse, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse; she had no idea there were so many ways to hurt one’s self and others.
Then she gets word of an older half-sister she’s never met. Tiger clings to the idea of family, even as she discovers that her half-sister isn’t exactly the epitome of responsibility. Still, Tiger wants to go home, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Going home doesn’t necessarily mean all the demons have left, however, and she discovers that grief is a beast that follows a person anywhere.
Author Kathleen Glasgow shares in her note at the end of the book how much of it was inspired by her personal experiences with grief, and she scores full marks in Tiger’s story for nailing the sound and look and emotion of loss. Tiger doesn’t mince words when it comes to sharing the depth of her broken heart. Readers will want to reach out to her and offer their heartfelt condolences, so real are her emotions.
Separated from the grief angle, however, the book doesn’t work quite as well. Cake is refreshing as Tiger’s best friend, putting her own wants and dreams on hold, yet she disappears two-thirds of the way through the story with a half-hearted narrative explanation and doesn’t reappear. The half-sister who becomes Tiger’s guardian spends a lot of time fretting over her own problems. At one point, Tiger joins a group at school for grieving teens, but that part of the story fizzles out as inconsequential as well.
Readers may wonder why these story elements were introduced if they weren’t going to contribute to the overall plot. Other pieces of the story come across as unrealistic too. Tiger shares early in the book how poor she and her mother are—she mentions with wryness the thrift store clothes she wears—yet early on she and June stay in touch with their cell phones. If they don’t have enough money for food, how are they paying that bill?
For readers wanting a story that shares the reality of grief in all its ugliness, this book fits the bill. Otherwise I recommend readers Borrow How to Make Friends with the Dark.