Take an armchair rollercoaster ride through the eyes of sharp-witted, long-suffering, youthful, talented new author Brianna Karp. In THE GIRL'S GUIDE TO HOMELESSNESS, you'll experience the ups and downs of Dysfunctional Family Life, Child Labor, Joblessness, Money-lessness, Cyberlove, and obviously, Homelessness --- but not, as Karp points out, hopelessness. This is a book of hope and change.
Karp grew up with a bipolar mother who terrorized her physically and mentally, and a violent father who abused her sexually before he fled the scene. She begins the book by wondering if "insanity runs in my blood." Living with a passive stepfather who generally knuckled under to Mommie Dearest in order to preserve peace, Karp went out to work from age 10, with the bulk of her wages going to placate her insatiably greedy mother. What made it worse was that her parents and all their acquaintances were Jehovah's Witnesses who believed, she opines, "God would fix everything eventually. Just not right now." After much struggle, Karp made an escape and, in her 20s, seemed to have recouped her sense of self with a professional-level job, a homey cottage and a giant pooch named Fezzik.
Then came 2008, and the bottom dropped out of the economy. To her shock, she was laid off. Casting about for a plan, she wound up back at "home" once again, an arrangement as horrific as she feared it would be. A bit of ironic good luck came her way when her biological father shot himself: she inherited a beat-up truck and a little travel trailer. With these assets, and a cell phone, a laptop and some erratic unemployment checks, she became a person with "no fixed address," camping out in Walmart parking lots, cadging coupons for free gym memberships in order to have a place to shower, and relying on the indulgence of the staff at Starbucks to let her hang out checking job leads all day for the price of a single cup of coffee. The Walmart staff was sympathetic (even when a visitor from Corporate told them to clear the campers out), and the Starbucks baristas occasionally slipped her some day-old muffins. And she was determined to keep Fezzik as long as she could pay the Alpo bills.
The title, it must be said, is somewhat misleading, because Karp did have a home, if a rolling one. But the book holds together because many of her experiences of joblessness are typical, and others in a similar fix can learn from her experience. Karp is a determined, gritty soul who gradually built a support network through blogging. And on cyberspace she found something she never expected: love and acceptance from a man. Via her contacts and Matt's (he was a former homeless blogger based in Scotland), she found herself becoming a spokesperson for economic despair and indignity. Television appearances and an internship quickly followed. She developed a credo: "I'm trying to buck the commonly held myths and stereotypes about the homeless --- pointing out their resourcefulness, their value, their ability to contribute to society, their desire to work and continue leading normal lives and their drive to create a sustainable lifestyle while they try to reverse their circumstances."
Even as she garnered increasing recognition as an advocate for the unemployed, Karp's relationship with Matt slowly and painfully deteriorated, and for a while, she became truly homeless in the worst sense of that word: pregnant and abandoned by her erstwhile lover in a foreign country, in the dead of winter --- with no money, no friends, no silver lining --- trying to live in a train station.
It was her blogging contacts who rescued her, who kept her sane, who got her back on track. By the end of this intercontinental saga, we feel sure that Karp has survived, that her writing talent will be her saving grace, and that THE GIRL'S GUIDE TO HOMELESSNESS will serve as a beacon of encouragement for others.
So turn on the flashlights, you intrepid Walmart campers, and get ready to turn some pages!
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 16, 2011