All parents know the primal urge to protect their children, and endure an equal amount of suffering when seeing them suffer. But what happens when the cause of the suffering is the parent themselves?
In her debut novel, Running for My Life, published Spring 2009 by WestSide Books, Ann Gonzalez presents a story of coping and eventual understanding within a family in crisis. The book is sure to resonate with teens that will identify with the book’s engaging protagonist and her friends, but the issues explored are important enough to matter to many more readers.Ann is a good friend who introduced me to the Whidbey Writers Workshop, where I found a community of like-minded writers and am currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults. Ann began the novel that would become Running for My Life, as part of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, the annual November challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.
The story is narrated by Andrea McKane, a fourteen-year-old guilty of nothing more than being scared and bewildered when facing the reality of her mother’s recurring mental illness. How Andrea copes—or doesn’t—offers a glimpse into a world that is both moving and disturbing.
In our society, it is still unfortunately true that it’s okay to be sick in some ways but not in others. At least that’s what a lot of kids think. Andrea wants to love her mom—does love her—but is tired of carrying around the burden of her mother’s illness. She just wants life to be normal. To imagine her mother in her future becomes almost more than she can bear.
Gonzalez captures these intense emotions and feelings honestly. The unfolding of Andrea’s story—as she reveals her fear that she, too, will someday be “sick” like her mother—emerges slowly, through sessions with her therapist Samantha, frank talks with Margie, and a budding connection to her first crush, Sean.
Goaled by Margie into joining the track team on the pretext of impressing Sean, Andrea is surprised to find she loves to run, although the potential solace it offers is cut short when a bad fall results in her breaking her leg. Gonzalez’s use of running as both a literal and figurative metaphor to bracket Andrea’s stop-and-go journey as she confronts the reality of her mother’s illness and navigates her own healing, is brilliant. In an subtle way, the book offers a great model for teens of a way to alleviate stress by embracing the euphoric high that physical activity offers as an alternative to less positive ways of coping.
There is much to admire about Running for My Life, including the sensitive way Gonzalez presents the relationships between Andrea and her father— who remains supportive of his wife while being fully present for his daughter—and down-to-earth Margie, the kind of friend any parent would wish for their kid.
Within this support system, Andrea learns that life goes on, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but it does go forward. As Andrea slowly defeats one demon after another, she learns that with each victory come consequences that affect not only herself but also everyone around her, giving her struggle an urgency that propels the reader forward.
In some of the book’s best passages, we experience along with Andrea—in real-time—her terror, as she navigates the physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Burying my face in the crook of my arm, on top of my knee, I feel squeezed into a tight dark spot. I don’t ever want to lift my head.
“She’s going to kill me,” I talk to the blackness.
“Is that what she said?”
Maybe they’re wrong about my leg. Maybe it’s okay, and if I take off this stupid boot, I’ll be able to walk, and run and run and run, without any problem.
“Andrea? Where are you?” Lifting my head I see Samantha’s face, my mother’s face, the face of a monster.
Considering the truthfulness of the subject matter, it could have easily fallen into the dark and depressing. Yet, Gonzalez, writing in the first person point of view, completely eludes a sense of hopelessness, while still grasping a young girl’s reality head on, and bringing the often untouchable subject matter of mental illness out in the open.
Weaving a story around a serious and important trauma takes courage. Gonzalez manages to make Andrea’s story speak to situations many teens are undoubtedly facing, and presents it in a way that is not only illuminating but entertaining—not something that is always easy to do when tackling tough topics. The arguments and information in Running for My Life are what make the book important, but it’s the story that will keep you reading.
Running for My Life
by Ann Gonzalez
WestSide Books, Ages 14+
Hardcover: 238 pp; $16.95