By Janet Gurtler
Praise for Janet Gurtler
Flynn’s from the wrong side of the tracks, but he may be just right for Jess…
The truth is that Jess knows she’s screwed up. She’s made mistakes, even betrayed her best friend, and now she’s paying for it. Her dad is making her spend the whole summer volunteering at the local soup kitchen.
The truth is that she wishes she was the carefree party girl everyone thinks she is. She pretends it’s all fine. That her “perfect” family is fine. But it’s not. And no one notices the lie…until she meets Flynn. He’s the only one who really sees her. The only one who really listens.
The truth is that Jess is falling apart, and no one seems to care. But Flynn is the definition of “the wrong side of the tracks.” When Jess’s parents look at him, they only see their differences, not how much she and Flynn need each other. They don’t get that the person who shouldn’t fit into your world might just be the one who makes you feel like you belong.
RITA Award finalist Janet Gurtler’s young adult books have been chosen for the Junior Library Guild Selection and as Best Books For Teens from the Canadian Children’s Book Center. She has had her writing compared to Judy Blume and Jodi Picoult and that makes her happy. She has volunteered at a few soup kitchens and hopes to do more. Giving back is so important. Janet lives in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada, with her husband, son, and a chubby black Chihuahua named Bruce.
The greenhouse is sort of shaped like an old barn. It’s opaque with plastic and steel siding. The door is open, and I follow Wilf inside and pause and then breathe it in. The smell nourishes me. Moist air fills my lungs. I’ve forgotten how much the scents of greenery soothe me. It reminds me of different times. Simpler times.
“Nice,” I tell him, looking around at rows of plants on tabletops and plants stacked on the floor. I realize I’ve missed the satisfaction of nurturing plants.
There’s a man on a ladder in the middle of the greenhouse, fixing a shelf, with his back to us. A little boy stands at the bottom of the ladder, watching. Wilf walks over and pats his head and kneels down to his level. “How are ya, big guy?”
The little boy stands taller and giggles and holds out his hand. He’s got it wrapped tightly around a plastic blue train.
The man on the ladder turns and looks down at me. My heart stops.
It’s not a man at all. It’s him.
My face burns.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
Wilf frowns and then looks at me. “What’s up with you kids these days? In my time, we treated nice--looking young ladies with respect,” he says to Flynn gruffly. “Flynn, this is Jess. She volunteers here.”
I say a silent thank--you to him for calling me nice--looking and glance back at Flynn.
“Since when?” he asks.
“Since now. How about, ‘hello, nice to meet you’?” Wilf says to prompt both of us. “Is that so hard?”
“We’ve already met,” Flynn says.
My cheeks stay on fire as he climbs down the ladder.
“The shelf is fixed,” he says to Wilf. “Slumming?” he adds to me as he jumps to the floor. He folds up the ladder and then leans it against a counter lined with plants.
The little boy stares back and forth.
I try to think of something light and witty to save the moment, but my mind is blank. Instead, I panic. “What’d you do to get stuck working at this place?” I say, channeling my inner Nance.
“What’d I do?” He stares at me and then his lips turn up. “I didn’t have the right daddy, I guess. I’m here to have lunch. With my little brother. I’m not a volunteer.”
My stomach drops. Fail. Epic fail.
If you see things through Flynn’s not so rosy perspective, Jess has everything a person could want and need. On top of the basics (food and shelter), she also lives in a safe and wealthy neighborhood, wears expensive clothes, drives a very nice car that her dad pays for, attends the nicest school….you get the picture. What Flynn doesn’t see is that although Jess has all these material things she is spiraling from the loss of pretty much everyone important in her life. Her mom has been dealing with severe depression and rarely leaves her room and never the house. Her sister has secretly moved in with her boyfriend and his family to avoid the dysfunction at home. And her dad is barely hanging in there emotionally while trying to manage his career, two teenage daughters, and a wife that can’t get a grip on day-to-day life.
I was very impressed with the development of Jess’ character. The change in her is gradual and realistic. I really appreciated that she didn’t go from one extreme to another. Even as she learns to be more understanding there is still an underlying discomfort that she is completely honest about. I also greatly enjoyed Jess’ relationship with Wilf, the elderly volunteer that cared for the greenhouse. Their relationship was feisty and highly amusing.
But Flynn isn’t the only one being judgmental. Having so much privilege has made Jess ignorant of poverty and how complicated it truly is. When Jess screws up bad enough that her dad makes her volunteer at the local soup kitchen, she is forced to compare the luxuries she has to the basic needs that others don’t. And as she becomes friends with the volunteers and the people that use the services the kitchen provides (Flynn and his little brother included) she starts to see how complicated life is for everyone and how, for many, it’s not as simple as getting a job and making more money.
I was hot and cold on Flynn. And I think I was supposed to be. Not that long ago he was growing up in a solid middle-class home but, thanks to his step-father spending all his mom’s savings and taking off, they are barely making it. Like Jess, Flynn has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He and his little brother have lunch at the soup kitchen so that his mom has one less meal to worry about buying as she desperately tries to get them all back on their feet. You can see how proud Flynn can be when he insists on doing odd jobs around the kitchen as a sort of payment for the charity he utilizes. But Flynn has a much harder time fighting the unfair class division between him and Jess and it will take a lot of convincing on Jess’ part to fight for a growing relationship that neither of them expected.
This was one of those contemporary YA stories that will, emotionally, hit close to home for a lot of people. It is a great look at how complicated life can be and how privilege doesn’t necessarily promise happiness and poverty doesn’t preclude family and love.