BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

bgThere’s a slogan in London regarding their mass transit system that has become something of a rallying cry for various causes: Mind the Gap.  In London’s Underground this means make sure you pay attention when you’re disembarking.  It is this slogan that kept running through my mind when reading Laura Ruby’s masterful young adult novel Bone Gap. It wasn’t just the title that made me think of this slogan, it was the idea that at any time, this book could sweep me away.  That is the kind of book Bone Gap is: full of evocative imagery, innovative characters, and big questions.  I was always minding the craft Laura Ruby put into Bone Gap because it is my favorite kind of narrative: the more attention I paid to it, the more the story revealed.

Bone Gap tells several stories at once.  It is the story of a place – Bone Gap – where everyone knows each other but it doesn’t always mean they like each other.  It is also, on the surface, the story of how Finn sees his brother’s girlfriend Roza being kidnapped by a man he can’t quite describe and thus no one can quite believe him.  But, deeper than that, Bone Gap Roza’s story – between the gaps of here and there – of how she is learning to stand up for herself and not let the world define her.  Bone Gap is Finn’s story of growing up and falling into an intense, slow-burn romance with a girl named Petey.  Finn also has a disability – to say more would be to spoil some of the wonderful reveals of the story – and how this informs his character is also a small marvel of storytelling. Bone Gap is also Petey’s story and, just like everyone else in Bone Gap, Petey must figure out who she is outside of who everyone keeps TELLING her she is.

This is one of Bone Gap’s biggest strengths, and one of the things I think will draw teen readers to it the most: this is a story about defining yourself and not letting other people define you.  In a way, this is the ultimate struggle of adolescence and Ruby weaves this theme throughout every story.  Will you let people know you only as the ugly girl, the awkward weirdo?  Will you define yourself as the little brother who gets picked on, does everything wrong, and can’t take action?  Will you be only pretty, a beautiful girl who is only your face?  Or will you – can you – be more than those things?  Bone Gap asks the question I think almost all teens are asking in one form or another: who I am I really?

Bone Gap does that trickiest of all things: it is both literary fiction and has, I think, very high teen appeal.  As to the literary fiction part: Ruby’s writing is a punch in the gut.  It is perfectly crafted and well-calibrated for deliberate effect.  But I want to emphasize both the literary quality and the teen appeal because many reviews of Bone Gap might make it seem like it is the kind of thing only your high achieving non reluctant readers will pick up.  Now, while those readers will certainly love the craft and the writing in Bone Gap, I also think emergent readers will be drawn to the mystery of the story, the intense romance between Petey and Finn, and the undeniably creepy and downright scary horror world Roza is trapped in by a character who is pure evil. These things keep the pages turning even as you’re marveling at the way Ruby brought them all together. I’ve been telling people this is a horror story meets John Green and it just FITS.  Petey and Finn are a great YA couple – pulled together even when everyone says they have nothing in common and then thrown into the mix is the through-the-looking glass horror that traps Roza.  What a combo!

Bone Gap is also all about the male gaze.  It’s about how people think of Finn for being dreamy and different – how their assumptions of what masculinity are trap him in ways he can’t fully comprehend until he decides to disregard other’s opinions.  It’s about how what traps Roza (and even Petey) the most are men’s ideas of what she should look like and think like and be.  The biggest monster in this story is the patriarchy and oh, oh, the moment Roza decides to fight back!

I long for awards chatter to start over Bone Gap. It should, because this is a lyrical, haunting, meticulously crafted book.  That also means there will soon be chatter of “I just didn’t get it.” and “Teens won’t read this.”  While I can’t speak to the former – not every book is for every reader, after all – I think I can speak to the latter.  Teens WILL be drawn to this story and we, as educators and librarians, can promote and advocate for it, for everything original and exciting about it, by speaking about all the mysteries and wonder in this book.

Bone Gap is highly recommended for high school readers and as a first purchase for all libraries.  It is challenging and compelling and isn’t afraid to tackle head on hard issues of bodily autonomy, feminism, and self-perception.  Bone Gap is about seeing yourself as more than a face, more than what people say you are.  It’s empowering and exciting for teen readers and, y’all, there was a moment that literally made me punch my fist in the air with glee.  Bone Gap is also a great introduction to magical realism –as the worlds of plausible and impossible bleed into each other – this is the perfect way to introduce teens to a new genre. Though I am a public librarian, I think this would be an amazing book to do with a class or in a book group.  It is teachable and has lots of material to analyze.

Bone Gap is my choice for the 2016 Printz Award.  It is masterfully constructed and crafted and with off-the charts  literary merit that holds up on a re-read.  (And another re-read, just to be sure.)  My Printz pick last year was Grasshopper Jungle and there is plenty in Bone Gap that reminds me of that book – particularly the way they skirt the edge of real and not real and ask teen readers to really sit with how the world looks at them and what they can do about that.

Bone Gap is out now. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

You won’t soon forget your visit to Bone Gap and the people you meet there.  Their journeys and growth will stick with you. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself “minding the gap” long after you have turned the last page.

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