Hit the Ground Running

  • Alison Hughes
  • Orca Book Publishers, 2017

When a Children’s Services staffer rings the doorbell one morning, sixteen-year-old Dee Donnelly knows the game is up. Her father has been gone from home for six weeks, the money jar is almost empty, and Dee fears what happens to siblings apprehended by Children’s Services. She quickly assembles her resources and packs her brother, Eddie, in the car with food, water, bedding, and assorted keepsakes. She can’t legally drive and she may be an illegal alien, but she’s determined to get out of Arizona and up to the Canadian border before a state agency can tear her family apart.

What’s striking about this novel is how funny it is. Dee’s situation is desperate, no doubt, but her telling of the story is leavened by eye-rolling, sarcasm, silly jokes, and pratfall comedy. Whether she’s making an early-morning escape from a stranger’s yard in which she accidentally parked or charming a state trooper to avoid having to cough up a driver’s licence, Dee’s sardonic delivery is perfect. A brave, resourceful young woman, Dee is observant, quick thinking, and clearly mature for her age; but those qualities don’t stop her from playing in the pool with Eddie — or put a filter on her potty mouth. Dee is beautifully written, the kind of character that will stick with readers long after they finish the book.

Another striking element of this novel is its frankness about being poor. At least some readers will identify: in this decade, many households live precariously close to financial disaster. The disappearance of Dee’s father (who is clearly a fragile person) suggests how easily any domestic problem — a persistent illness, a mental health breakdown, the abrupt end of a relationship — could bring the façade of “doing just fine” tumbling down around a teenager like Dee. Dee is practical about her poverty; she works around it, but it’s always present, always threatening, and eventually it leads to a frightening scene in which Dee and Eddie are chased by a “creeper.” Alert readers may perceive how little control Dee has over her situation, despite her careful choices; here, the author raises an intriguing critique, inviting readers to ask bigger questions about an individual’s circumstances and outsiders’ judgements.

The novel ends hopefully, but not happily. The future for Dee and Eddie is far from certain, despite the timely arrival of their Auntie Pat. Alison Hughes leaves the novel ambiguously resolved, yet ambiguity is the more believable — and, frankly, more satisfying — ending.

Hit the Ground Running is an excellent choice for teen reading groups and for classroom libraries, as well as public and school libraries. Readers are sure to enjoy following Dee on her helter-skelter road trip to Canada. I certainly did!

This review was originally published in Resource Links October 2017