I thought I’d try something different today and post a book review. Recently, I’ve been reading novels from the national book award list (both winners and finalists). The Rules of Survival is one I particularly liked. Hopefully, I’ll intrigue you enough to want to give the book a try.
(Warning: contains spoilers)
What would you do if you knew someone was being abused? What would you do if your mother were the abuser? Would you call the police, or tell someone? Would you pretend nothing was happening? Would you stop the abuse?
These are questions Matthew must face while living with his unpredictable and often violent mother, Nikki. In The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin, Matthew Walsh is a teenage boy trying to protect his younger sisters, and himself, from their abusive mother.
The story begins with Matthew writing to his youngest sister, Emmy, who is too young to understand all the events that occurred in their family’s past. He tells her that he’s writing everything down, so that one day she’ll be able to know what happened, while he, Emmy, and Callie, the middle sibling, lived with their mother.
Then, the introductory letter ends and the chronological story begins with Nikki leaving her children home alone, while she goes out to party. Matthew and Callie leave the house, and Emmy sleeping in it, to make a quick run to the Cumberland Farms store, where they meet Murdoch, who protects a kid from being abused.
Matthew and Callie set out to befriend Murdoch, hoping he’ll be able to free them from their mother, but Nikki catches on and begins to date Murdoch. Eventually, they break up. Nikki’s rage blossoms as she blames the break up on Murdoch and, as she spirals out of control, she begins to stalk, brutalize, and threaten him.
Soon, Matthew and his sisters fear for their lives, and Murdoch’s. Matthew approaches Murdoch and convinces him to help get rid of Nikki. Murdoch enlists Matthew’s aunt, estranged father, and a friend to antagonize Nikki, so that she’ll get herself in trouble and lose custody.
This works. She’s thrown in jail and loses custody, but once she’s free, she kidnaps Emmy. Matthew finds his sister, only to get caught by their mother. Matthew is about to kill Nikki, when Murdoch arrives and advises her to run away and never come back to Boston.
Years later, everyone is still receiving threatening letters from her, but they no longer open them. Matthew decides to never give what he’s written to Emmy, because this story wasn’t for her, but for him to understand what kind of person he’s become.
The Rules of Survival is a story of psychological, emotional, and physical child abuse. It is written in first person and in the form of a letter from Matthew to his youngest sister, Emmy: “But if you are reading this letter, that means you are about to find out everything I know. It means I will have decided to tell you—decided twice. Once, by writing it all down now. And then again, by giving this to you to read sometime in the future.”
By writing in the form of a letter, Werlin has made the story more personal. Readers feel the story more intensely because they are not only experiencing the story as a reader, but also as a five year old girl, which was Emmy’s age at the time of these events. Knowing that “you” are a young child constantly in danger heightens a reader’s emotions to a greater extent than the reader solely being an outside observer. Werlin forces readers into the story, into the center of the abuse, and makes sure that readers understand what it’s like to see no way out: “She had the big kitchen knife, and it was pressed to my throat. And as she laughed, I could feel it shake in her hands, and push against my skin. / She cut me that night. Just a little.” (9)
More than showcasing feelings of being trapped and hopelessness, at its core, this story is about acting in the face of injustice. It’s about not ignoring the suffering and maltreatment an individual inflicts on others, but doing something about it. It’s about helping and stepping up.
There are three adult figures that know about the abuse, but do nothing about it. Matthew must get them to act. These adults: Murdoch, Matthew’s father, and Matthew’s aunt, are all aware of how abusive Nikki is – Matthew’s aunt lives right downstairs, while Matthew’s father ran away from Nikki – but they continually make excuses as to why they can’t help. It’s only when Matthew convinces Murdoch that Nikki is spiraling out of control, and that she’s going to end up killing someone, that he takes control of the situation: “There’s so much I do not know about Murdoch, even now. He keeps secrets. But still, I think that was the moment. That was it. That was the very second when he—and this is an odd word, but the right one—engaged. I think that was the exact moment when he said yes to helping us.” (126)
Murdoch, and Matthew’s father and aunt, end up working together to rescue Matthew and his sisters. This message of helping to prevent injustice runs throughout the entire book. From the first moment Matthew met Murdoch to the end of the novel, when Murdoch tells Matthew that he suffered abuse from his father as a child, the idea that no one should stand passively by while abuse occurs is prevalent.
When Murdoch was being abused, no one helped him. The only reason he escaped his father was because he, a child, killed him. By stepping in to help Matthew, Murdoch prevented history from repeating itself. Matthew was about to kill his mother: “I could do anything that I had to do now. I knew it. I could even—I saw it suddenly—I could kill Nikki. I could. It would be easy. I would feel no remorse. She deserved death,” when Murdoch intervened. (241)
Killing his father irrevocably changed Murdoch. It ended his childhood. No adult was there to save him, but he arrived in time to make sure that Matthew never had to do what he did, that some part, even if it was just a sliver, of Matthew’s childhood remained. Werlin’s message shows that no matter how difficult helping seems, the alternative of ignoring an abusive relationship can lead to far worse outcomes.
Werlin’s realistic and easy-to-follow language, combined with her short chapters help make this message and the entirety of her novel accessible to readers. Her writing style involves readers and shows the story’s events, reactions, emotions, and reflections in a raw light: “The human instinct for self-preservation is strong. I know, because mine pulls at me, too, like the needle on a compass…everybody seems to agree that the instinct and responsibility of all humans is to take care of themselves first. You have the right to self-defense. You have the right to survive, if you can.” (73)
Werlin intersperses introspection, occasionally she includes very short, but entire chapters on Matthew’s insights, and interpretations into what’s occurring: “But how come there don’t seem to be any rules about when you ought to help others survive? Rules telling you when that’s worth some risk to yourself? Callie and I were working so hard for you, Emmy, but as far as I could see, nobody else cared at all. For any of us.” (73)
These moments of introspection show more of how Matthew interprets past events than simply retelling the story. These short chapters let his older voice shine through, giving readers insight into what type of man he’s become.
At the end of the story, when Matthew is writing his closing letter to Emmy, readers realize, as does Matthew, that this story wasn’t for Emmy, but for himself. All those moments of contemplation peppering the retelling were him trying to figure out the person he’s become: “So, Emmy. Little sister. You’re never going to read this, are you? I’m never going to give it to you…I wrote it to understand who I am, and how I ought to act in the world.”
Werlin creates a horrific and realistic picture of an abusive life and how it impacts people through Matthew’s eyes. She shows how the past, even if a person has escaped it, will forever form whom that person becomes. In the end, it’s the survivors who tell the story.
(Photo courtesy of Bjorn Bechstein.)