Beneath a Meth Moon
Nancy Paulsen Books: 189 pp., $16.99, ages 12 and up
If there's any common thread among drug addicts, it's an aversion to feeling uncomfortable emotions. The cause of the emotion is unimportant. What matters is the individual's inability to deal with it healthily.
This unsettling cause-and-effect pairing has long been a theme in the ever-expanding young adult canon, but it gets a timely makeover in "Beneath a Meth Moon." The latest teen novel from National Book Award honoree Jacqueline Woodson fuses the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with a 15-year-old's meth addiction. Described as an "elegy" on its title page, the novel mourns the drowning of a young woman's mother and grandmother and the narrator's unwitting embrace of methamphetamines as a result.
In less talented hands, such a concept with a one-two punch could easily be dismissed as sensationalism, but Woodson handles each aspect of her story with compassion and lyricism. Fifteen-year-old Laurel may not fully understand or even feel her sorrow, but Woodson channels it for her in a tone that explains without condescension.
Told in a pastiche of flashbacks from Laurel's point of view, the book embraces the advice of a rehab counselor to "go backward. And don't stop when it gets painful." Those same sentences apply to Woodson's construction of "Beneath a Meth Moon," which begins with the story's conclusion: A successfully rehabbed Laurel prepares to recount her struggles.
The book then skips to Laurel's panhandling days — when meth becomes her everything, replacing the need for food, shelter, clothing, even love — after she stole her father's money, got caught and ran away to live in an abandoned hardware store.
"Beneath a Meth Moon" is decidedly nonlinear, but it makes its own logic. Individual vignettes are presented as back story, raising questions that are later answered with other, more telling vignettes about what happened before Laurel's "whole life got washed away" with the hurricane, and after — when she was homeless, then hospitalized. The effect is a book that reads like a paint-by-numbers artwork with a basic template that is eventually colored in.
It is both surprising, and surprisingly relatable, that Laurel had been a cheerleader and that the person who first got her hooked on the drug was the co-captain of her school's basketball team. Choosing such athletically oriented, popular high school characters underscores the pernicious reach of meth — the second-most-abused illicit drug in the world after marijuana.
Woodson does not shy from the details of meth use. In writing that distills individual scenes to their emotional essence, she details the exhilarating sensations of sniffing the powder behind a 7-Eleven for the first time, the manic energy, the amplification of her attraction to and attention from the boy who initiated their relationship with the question "You like to party?"
Woodson then tracks Laurel's casual use through to its addictive and debilitating conclusion, when Laurel's want becomes a need and her body rebels with incessant itchiness, aching and acne.
Gritty as the subject matter is, readers know from the very beginning that Laurel finds her way through this mess to the other side. The catalyst for this change is a tough-love stranger whose words reach her in a way that her best friend's and father's didn't. As Laurel comes to realize, "It's a long walk away from meth," but it can be done. "Beneath a Meth Moon" invites readers to walk that long road with her in a story told with heart and hope.