In her five previous novels, which focus on such timely and disturbing social phenomena as sexual abuse, attempted suicide and methamphetamine use, Ellen Hopkins cuts through propaganda and politics to get to the emotional heart of the often controversial subjects she explores. In TRICKS, her most ambitious novel to date, Hopkins uses her free verse style to great effect as she explores the different routes taken by five teens to the same desperate solution: prostitution.
Hopkins utilizes slightly different styles for each of her five subjects, a distinction that will probably go unnoticed by many readers, especially once they become absorbed in each person’s story. She also provides transitions between narrators by repeating key words, further expressing the connections among these young people even before the plot does so. Although these stylistic niceties are subtle, the differences among Hopkins’s subjects are not, and readers will likely have no trouble distinguishing the teens’ narrative voices because their stories are so singular.
Eden is the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher in Idaho, whose parents send her to a religious rehabilitation camp, where she falls in love with a non-believer and trades sexual favors with a prison guard to try to secure her freedom. Seth is an Indiana farm boy who comes out to his father in the wake of his first gay love affair, only to be thrown out of the house and into the arms of a wealthy but demanding and manipulative older lover. Whitney is a typical wealthy teen from Santa Cruz; when her first serious relationship fails, her insecurities and desire for affection connect her with a charismatic older man who promises her love but may not have her best interests at heart. For Ginger, prostitution runs in the family; she doesn’t respect her prostitute mother, and she knows she has to escape (even if it means abandoning her younger siblings) when her mom starts pimping Ginger herself out to clients in search of someone younger. Cody lives in Las Vegas, so it’s not surprising that he turns to gambling when a health emergency and family death lead to financial strains; when online poker and sports betting force him deeper into debt, however, Cody becomes desperate enough to perform acts he never would have imagined before.
Hopkins’s writing is striking and shocking partly because of the juxtaposition of lyricism and lewdness in each person’s story. Each teen starts his or her short section with a poem summing up thematic or narrative concerns: “You stand in front of me, / Pretending to be solid, / but you’re nothing / more than smoke and mirrors.” These thoughtful, lyrical passages stand in stark contrast to the scenes of graphic sex, drug use and desperation that eventually characterize each subject’s narratives. Readers will be alternately titillated and horrified by the encounters Hopkins describes in brief but explicit detail, and will frequently find themselves both repelled by the wretched situations she recounts and unable to turn away from the seeming inevitability of the outcomes. For some of the kids, the outcomes are bleak indeed; for others, hope shines --- or at least glints --- through the closing pages.
TRICKS is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the wildly varying, but all-too-common, paths that lead to the dead-end desperation of teen prostitution.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 25, 2009