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Billie Livingston has the knack of portraying teenage life in a way that is unerring and intimate. She creates engaging characters who talk as we understand teenagers do but, unlike the mean girls we may have known when young, Livingston allows her fictional teens to find kindness among their peers even when life seems really low.
Burnaby teenager Sammie Bell, protagonist of Livingston’s new novel One Good Hustle, is a tough cookie, but sweet nonetheless, and relies on her friends for survival since her parents have essentially abandoned her.
Sammie’s mother, Marlene, lurches between drunken stupor and half-hearted efforts to commit suicide. Her father Sam is in Toronto, living with a woman named Peggy. He stayed out East after being in prison and only sporadically keeps in touch with his daughter.
When they were still together, Sammie’s parents earned their living as cons, hustling naive men for their money, stealing from stores, plotting rip-offs. They roped the young Sammie into some of their cons and although the more grown-up 16-year-old in Burnaby rues she may never become more than a hustler, she yearns for a life without complications.
Years spent with undependable, absentee parents have caused her to lose confidence that things can ever be stable or positive. “A good hustler can steer the game so that the cards go right where he wants them,” she believes, “but I’m no hustler. I’m a gold-plated sucker.”
Writer Livingston has cast her story in the late 1970s or early 1980s, making reference to daytime television such as The Merv Griffin Show and songs by Fleetwood Mac. There are no cellphones or computers.
This period, more than 30 years ago, reflects a time when a teenager’s efforts at independence were extremely unusual, so Sammie’s struggles become even more poignant. Sammie needs to manoeuvre through life alone as a 16-year-old when there is little in the way of social safety net. Livingston uses this historical background purposefully to explain the separateness teens feel in the larger social world.
She is adroit at capturing the glib way 16-year-old girls speak and reflecting the eternal concerns about boys and clothes and hair. She uses descriptive elements to express Sammie’s social anomalies — her hair is curly and coarse, compared to the popular girls’ smooth, straight locks. But Sammie doesn’t seem to care. She gets that she will never really be part of the in-crowd.
We admire Sammie, even as we empathize with her tough situation, the parents who are never there when needed. But in the end, when Sammie returns to her newly sober mother, we understand why she went. Whatever love her mother can offer becomes a deep yearning for Sammie.
Livingston reminds us children often love their parents no matter what, and are willing to forgive their bad behaviour no matter how extreme. It works both ways. Parents forgive their children and are usually waiting with open arms.