Jennifer Rouse Barbeau’s novel Swampy Jo is perhaps one of the only young adult novels that does not attempt to candy-coat the issues of suicide, mental breakdowns and anorexia. In this novel it is a fact of life and if you as the reader cannot accept that fact, then tough.
I’ll be honest with you when I tell you this book did absolutely nothing to appeal to me at first. The cover was cartoonish and not really that attractive, the title reminded me of a bad horror movie and the description sounded just a wee bit boring. I suppose this has been another lesson in the age old adage of not judging a book by its cover, because I ended up immensely enjoying it. This is the type of story that has the ability to question not only yourself, but the values we as a society place upon each other.
We never really hear (well, read) “Swampy Jo’s” real name. Because of this, it would seem easy to think of her of an object- the very way she views herself. We know that she is a girl and we know she has the title of ‘swampy’ because she has deplorable hygiene. However, this fact is very easy to forget because the narrator, Swampy herself, doesn’t pay much notice to it at all. In fact, Swampy seems to pay no attention to the things that are most pivotal to the story. She is dirty all the time, but she doesn’t inspect this fact about herself as something that is unacceptable. It is who she considers herself to be and it isn’t until much later that it is revealed that it is a means of protection. From what exactly, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Her father hates her. She turns anorexic because she wants to be more attractive (she, like many young girls, equates thinness with beauty). Her mother has a mental breakdown. Her family is overzealously religious. But in all these problems, this is not what she focuses on. No, this is a story about love. It may not sound like it, but it is about being able to love -to hope- in spite of all the barriers to it. Love is something to be treasured and it is the beauty that manages to shine through this darkly disturbing novel.
I call it disturbing because that’s what it is. But it is a disturbing in a good way (yes, there’s such a thing). Swampy sees these things as just another fact of life and this is what makes it disturbing- that she doesn’t realize that there is a problem. The entire novel had me rooting for her, wanting her to understand that it’s all right to be different and that it’s all right to get help. It sounds silly, but even though Swampy is a literary character, it is very easy to see yourself in her- if only in a “what could have been” sort of way.
Often humorous, the story isn’t painted black. In fact, it’s fairly easy to forget all the issues within the novel in order to simply be amused with the absurdity of her life. But when it all comes spiraling to a close at the end of the novel, there isn’t exactly a ‘happily ever after ending’. And that’s the way it should be, because a story that surrounds itself with such destruction can’t simply end. And that’s all I’ll say about the close, because this is the type of book that begs to be read.
- The character of Swampy Jo is my favorite thing about this novel. She triumphs above everything that threatens to destroy her… but she very nearly does it by accident.
- All of the characters are ‘real’. They are imperfect, flawed and human. This is a very rare thing to find in a world obsessed with perfection.
- The ease of reading the novel. It isn’t a foreboding, intellectual read. It is something that can be read by both young adults and adults (for which there really isn’t that much of a difference- ’adults’ are just better at concealing their childish tendencies in public).
- I, at first, disliked the cover of the novel. But, after considering it for a little while, I have decided that I actually like the way Swampy is portrayed. She is thin and dirty, someone who would most likely be ignored save for a sidelong glance if you were to see her on the street. And that is precisely who she is- she is a wallflower who chooses to disguise herself with dirt.
Should you read it?
Absolutely! Remember how I didn’t think I would like it very much, but I now absolutely adore it? Yeah, that’ll be you too. Read it. (Yes, that is an order).