Oh , if only this had been written as a First Love or Wildfire and been able to truly embrace it’s complex characters , and unique angle. But why complain, for a Sweet Dreams it’s top notch. It could even spark a deeper analysis of the relation setting has to the events that unfold for instance – Is Katie learning to survive in the wilds or to survive the emotional wiles of the manipulative other woman?!
I wasn’t too kind to Suzanne Rand in my review of Green Eyes – but that’s not to imply I think one authors work exemplifies a whole – no way – specially not when the authors skedat around, what the literary snobs out there might call, junk fiction. There’s a lot of levy in this field. Sometimes an author comes into her own and really dazzles you with something fun – or like with On Her Own manages to take something ordinary and make it extraordinary. Now I warn you, On Her Own is a little skimpy in the love department but don’t let that stop you from enjoying it.
Here’s the Plot –
Katie Carlisle is an average blond from Maryland who’s both excited and terrified to be one of sixty in a summer Roughing It program in the Adirondacks. Though why she wants to rough it is never explained a fact which could give credence to my idea that this is more like a rite of passage novel for the teenage girl. Because there is no real reason that Katie has chosen this path it becomes a transition , and though she has saved up her money to come – Hazaah! It only means she’s invested in the rite! Her – I can do it excitement echoes that of a preteen boy about to embark on his centuries ago dream quest.
The action starts right off with the campers listening to Roughing it organizer, Dirk , telling them what to expect for the next three weeks. Gone are the parents , school work , civilization. But a raw sense of society is formed by groups either noticed by Katie – those who sit alert and are nervous – and those who sprawl and pretend they’re not or the actual groups organized by the camp and consisting of kids pretty much like you’d find in any high school. However the first two people , that she is intrigued by, are two ‘golden’ types : Lisa Morrison who is lithe and athletically graceful and Jake Summers whom she admits isn’t the most gorgeous boy she’s ever seen ( despite his list of handsome attributes ) but admires his charismatic energy anyway. Katie describes herself after these graceful energized creatures as slogging off to the cabins. But then again Katie doubts her own capabilities and Dirk’s speech that this is a program for the average type – not for any Superman or Superwoman hasn’t lessened her fears especially not after seeing confident Jake and Lisa the very personifications of Superman and Superwoman.
Visual support comes, however when she spots one of her guides a slim built Asian woman, May but it’s a backhanded relief because Katie automatically decides that the program can’t be as rough as the brochures insist as May would never be able to cut it. Success, for her is based on the image of the first guide – Eric whose built like a grizzly bear – displaying brawn or on displaying ease like Lisa.
Despite her own instincts – spotting the fakers from the get-go , or retaining the advice of a seasoned leader she ignores them in favor of faulty images.( Eric despite his brawn admits to fear , Lisa despite her graceful behavior is a calculating cobra .) Katie’s no good at faking her emotions , this could be the reason why she’s so nervous. And what gets her into so much trouble – she learns to fudge her performance by becoming a shadow.
The campers are such an average group and their types or reasons for joining the Roughing It program are so obscure that the rite of passage vibe is reinforced. Lisa we’ve learned is already a ‘pro’ she’s been on the more extreme Winter Roughing it program – she has an edge. But we’re never quite sure why Lisa has come back – or why her type would show up in the first place? Fran a likable type has been dragged along by a boyfriend who she is now separated from, he’s in a different group ( everyone must make there own way! ) and huffs some vacation. Sara Zerbe- only chose the rough-it program to avoid summer school ( and possibly to lean on Lisa – because we are told her parents have gone off to Europe and ditched her, Sara become a doubly needy person – while others have parents eagerly awaiting their return – or a boyfriend in the next camp – Sara becomes a kind of orphan. ) Most of the kids are described in terms that offset the oddness of there being there. And Jake who tells Katie pg 30 that he’d been on the Winter rough it program and that his life had completely changed because of it makes the reader wonder what’s he doing back? Because something happened that week and months later that hasn’t been resolved – Jake still has a bit more growing up to do – he needs another rite of passage!
Katie , Fran and Lisa are placed in the same cabin for the first few days. Though Fran is clearly more lovable , Katie is drawn to the self-assurance of Lisa. When she runs into a hitch – literally while trying to make one, Lisa bails her out rather than let Katie continue to flounder and look clumsy. Soon after the girls have a run in with an unkept surly girl named Sara Zerbe. She’s upset that she hasn’t been placed in Lisa’s group ( she’d known Lisa during the winter Rough it program ) and had been counting on Lisa’s help. Her options for coming sounds more like a child being dumped at camp while her parents are off to Europe making her seem even more friendless, desperate and clingy. The girls become uncomfortable as Sara calls Lisa , who seems polite but hesitant , on not being glad to see her. That they’d been pretty close over the Winter and now … not even the reader can blame Lisa for being flustered and telling her not to be so weird. But this only triggers Sara’s anger. Now she looks emotional and slightly dingy , while Lisa comes out seeming tolerant and kind ( having had anything to do with that pest. )
Looking back after multiple rereads, one could see through the foreshadowing to a hint of fairy tale warnings ( from old crones ) even to the one given by the Roughing It leader which will never be heeded ( you need not be a Superwoman.) The heroine must discover or rediscover this revelation for herself. Not be scared off by Sara. ( the way she must learn to tie knots for herself , catch her own fish , aha! )
There is also something in the make-up of Jake’s character that could explain Katie’s nerves. When she admires Jake’s intensity ‘giving his all to everything he does’ even when only listening to the guides regaling the others with white water rafting tales she thinks – [Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone like that in love with you.] But is her blush of someone who knows a romance under such fleeting circumstances is foolish or is this also a recognition that being in love with someone who gives their all to a romance would be unnerving? – especially in someone as transparent as Katie who thinks of any mistake as a sign of deep inadequacy. That under his scrutiny he would see her as less than perfect. It’s like the hidden parable in Cinderella, who assumes happiness can be found only with the right dressing & status a temporary fix , for though it does attract the Prince’s attention , she cannot find true happiness until after the Prince has seen her in her sooty state – ( the real version not the Disney version.) Cinderella cannot enjoy her Prince fully under the false frippery of her fairy Godmother.
It’s a lesson Katie has to learn – being ‘perfect’ is a transparent sham making you only anxious as to when – the jig-will-be-up.
Katie meets Jake – caught daydreaming in line to pick up her gear, he says – [“I don’t mean to bother you, but had you noticed there’s about a fifteen-foot gap between the rest of the line and us.”] I love that! He’s a polite prince. Their brief chat ends with Katie’s hands shaking to show us how nervous she was at playing it cool. Reaffirming her lack of experience not to mention he’s got gorgeous denim blue eyes , maturity , confidence , self assurance.
Ironically after this meeting, the reader learns both of the girls Fran and Lisa – have steady boyfriends. ( Again sparking Katie’s inadequacy. ) And Katie will only admit he’s cute. But when Lisa agrees he’s terrific – and she should know her and Jake fell madly in love on the winter Roughing It program. A fact that sends Katie spiraling into a depression which is only relieved when she decides he’s out of her league anyway.
Sara meanwhile has gotten over trying to guilt Lisa into renewing their friendship and spends the last few meals at the camp glaring at her. Katie has never seen such hate. Or maybe just jealousy , cause Katie can’t imagine anyone hating helpful Lisa why she even break the rules for her – like when the teams are asked to make rope bridges for practice , Lisa tightens the rope so that Katie can walk across it with more ease. ( They were told to keep the ropes slack to imitate bad weather. ) Romance becomes a welcome distraction from the doubt Sara raises, a high point being when Katie slips crossing a stream , and Jake steadies her. And later on they meet on a flat isolated rock to cool their bare feet , wash out their socks and admire battle wounds. Though Katie once more doubts her decision as foolish – wearing shorts that exposed her legs to brambles – Jake shows her there is no right way – as his legs clad in pants are now soaked and he looks like a human sponge.
Just when things couldn’t get anymore perfect Katie learns that this romance need not be considered foolish when Jake reveals he lives in Maryland in a town right beside hers – in fact had she any interest in football she would’ve seen him playing.
The only flaw is the fact that Jake and Lisa totally ignore one another , and that Lisa admits she’s still crazy about him. Don’t count the new boyfriend as anything special besides she says – Jake had saved every penny and flew out to see her on the Easter weekend – [ If that isn’t love what is? ]
Though Katie is becoming more attuned to her surroundings , recognizing and appreciating the beauty of the wilderness , she still can’t decipher the nature of Lisa nor trust in her abilities that could slacken the lurking uneasiness concerning her solo. Instead she willfully allows Lisa to take over, growing to depend on her more and more. Because of this friendship she’s cooled off a bit towards Jake and then realizes now she could’ve botched up their signals – if he’s cooled off is it a reaction to her , or is it cause he’s still hung up on Lisa. But that doesn’t seem the case when the group is split in two and Jake elected to lead his group on the days hike gets to choose his own team. Katie is his first pick.
With Lisa out of the way – she was picked on the other team , Katie and Jake have a guilt free idyllic day , splashing about in an ice cold swimming hole complete with waterfall. Even ducking behind the ‘silvery curtain of water’ to share a steamy kiss. Now he looks at her as if to say ‘I like you a lot.’ Katie’s guilt rises up but it seems in evidence even to her rather fruitless – Lisa certainly doesn’t look at Jake in a caring way – she hasn’t even much talked about him but when the two groups join up and Katie’s obvious joy beams out – Lisa tells her she’s still crazy about Jake even though he’d hurt her by breaking it off with her so abruptly last Winter, she can’t even bare to watch the two of them together any more in fact all this time she’d been hoping Jake would make a move to apologize and patch things up. Horrified, especially when Lisa threatens to leave, Katie reluctantly agrees to cool it with Jake – until the trip is over and they’re back in Maryland. Lisa is deeply appreciative and hugs her.
Katie assumes because her and Lisa have decided this, that nothing can go wrong. She forgot Jake might’ve something to say about it. [What did you do discover I’ve got bad breath or something?] In the end Jake agrees , pleased when he learns that Katie is holding out for Maryland. But when Lisa interrupts – calling for Katie to come see the fish she’s caught – Jake says Watch out for her. He doesn’t get to elaborate.
Katie almost looks forward to the solo, just to get away from the watchful eyes of both Lisa and Jake – if she wasn’t so worried about falling into a ravine or running into an escaped loony. But when May drops her off with encouraging words you can do it on you own , Katie realizes to her sheer embarrassment – that there are worse things than fear – May knew all along that Lisa had been helping her. Heaped with shame in the knowledge that she’d become not just a shadow but a liar – allowing herself to take Lisa’s second caught fish and receive praise for it , Katie sets about on her journey to independence – [after all Lisa doesn’t want a best friend who clings to her.]Her solo allows her to accept her abilities ( without resorting to unreal comparisons ) and learn to try things outside her comfort zone – which includes catching a fish – dubbed Moby Dick- and gutting it! In fact she’s so charged up she wants to attend the Extreme Roughing It Trip next year- Oh how I wished there had been a sequel!
The others applaud her return, a tip off that they knew how much of a challenge this was for Katie but she’s proud and pleased. The only one not impressed with Katie’s success is Lisa whose face goes flat when Katie says you’ll never have to do anything for me again. Things get worse when Lisa after ignoring Katie asks Jake “How was your solo?” in an insinuating way. Made all the more worse by Jake’s blush and the fact that Lisa is found fondling one of Jake’s orange ribbons which were given out to mark their journey for the guides. Before Katie can decide who has betrayed her – Jake wants to talk. Lisa’s eyes fill with tears – don’t believe a word he says Katie he’s always been a liar. Hmmm.
Jake gives her the lowdown on Lisa – an extremely manipulative girl. A black widow spider capable of spinning many convincing webs. She was so charming she got him to save up every penny and fly out to see her only to discover, he was one of six boys on a string, just another trophy to show off. Feeling like a grade A moron he told her he was onto her game and left.
But Lisa is even more devious than Katie suspected – May and the others weren’t that perceptive it was just that Lisa made sure everyone saw what she was doing. Making her appear sweet and helpful and Katie look poor and helpless. She’s amazed Jake knew all this and still liked/likes her. Of course he says – I was scared once.
Katie wonders if she’s just a jellyfish. No , but a target for being pretty ( competition ) and desperate to do well. So Lisa put her under her thumb and when Katie didn’t stay there – she decided to punish her by attempting to take back Jake and Katie’s self reliance. Things that would make Lisa , in her eyes , seem unimportant.
The book ends with a final confrontation between Katie and Lisa – Lisa asks if Katie will continue to see Jake and do they really love each other. Katie says yes , and it’s too soon to tell. [ “It must be nice,” Lisa said. “to care about someone like that and know they care about you.” “Maybe someday you will Lisa,” I said softly. “I guess you could say it’s another skill you’ve got to learn.” ]
A thoroughly engrossing theme made more interesting by the fact that if you pick away at the layers of this book you can see how it emerges as a symbolic journey for Katie to decide what kind of woman she wants to be.
Case in point – the girls themselves are symbols set up like role models – Katie our heroine is eager but scared and rather indecisive. While she watches the group split themselves into those that pretend to be nonchalant and those that are visibly nervous she never puts herself on either side, in a sense she is like us the ‘reader.’ Who will be her role model? Lisa who is confident and self assured. Fran who is friendly and easy going or Sara who is unlikable and bitter.
She is drawn to Lisa – but why? Like Jake , Lisa is the golden girl member both of them are mentioned after Dirk says nobody is expected to be a Superman or Superwoman ( as if to contradict his statement )- Katie probably feels this is the ideal girl whom everyone should strive to be. Moving with an easy grace , mature , and experienced Lisa appears to have it all. But examine some of these traits when cast against others – while Jake tells us everything emotional and spiritual he got out of his winter Roughing it trip with the excitement of one hoping for even greater results this year – Lisa can only remark on her knowledge and acquired skills as accomplishments which make her seem mature and her performance – effortless. While Fran tells the reader about her steady boyfriend whose ring she wears , Lisa counters that she has a recent steady Kevin and they’re waiting till September so she can have his senior class ring ( Fran’s ring is actually her boyfriends grandfather’s ring a seemingly lesser-valued symbol. ) However we later learn Lisa’s remark is a bit of a snide jibe towards the non-status symbol of Fran’s ring , to the fact that Lisa has a string of boys , nobody exclusive. However she seems to be aware that one boy – with a class ring is a significant item for a golden girl to possess and so , she lies. While Jake stays in the present , encouraging Katie – Lisa slips back into her accomplishments on the winter program as efforts always undermining the experience ( as though Katie could never hope to reach her level ) i.e. the slacken rope bridge – she says try it in winter with ice. While vulnerable Sara apparently makes a fool out of herself for trying to get Lisa to verbally acknowledge that they were good friends, Lisa can only take Katie into her confidence and reveal pretend emotions and sheer lies, spun to manipulate others. But no one cringes and squirms at her words. By the end of the book and Lisa’s exposed – Katie admits she can like herself with her faults something she doubts Lisa can do. Why else would she knock herself out trying to manipulate situations? She didn’t trust that anyone would like her , for herself.
Fran like her name implies being so close phonetically to Friend is a good person in fact I believe that in a way – Fran is a little symbol for who Katie turned out to be. Fran runs a parallel to what everyone wants to have or be like despite her unimpressive appearance of being a plump redhead ( cause by the end of the book Katie has realized looks in the case of survival mean diddly-squat. ) Fran has a steady boyfriend , prompting Lisa to create one , she’s brave enough to go through the challenges without resorting to cheating ( though her description is less than sporty – something Katie worries about – looks accounting to roughing it success ) or subtle bragging, and at the end of the book Fran continues to be friendly with the almost shunned Lisa , a fact noted before Katie’s last talk with Lisa. No bitterness…
Which brings us to Sara. Now Sara apparently is the result of falling under Lisa’s spell. Jake describes her as sort of an emotional cripple. We learn her roots aren’t entirely sound – her parents ditched her at the program so they could run off to Europe. Contrast that with Lisa giving up a family vacation to come to the Roughing it program and one wonders if Katie could ever really become Sara ( she believed so by the end of the book ) And there are lots of angles to Sara. She’s noted as being rather unkept – scraggly haired. A sure sign of low esteem but only a prequel to the embarrassing conversation in which she tearfully tries to get Lisa to vocally back up what she feels – that their friendship meant something special. That she’s important to her. This desperation , her vulnerability makes Sara oddly unlikable and she’s a person who never quite heals from realizing the true nature of Lisa. Rather than feeling relieved to be out from under her thumb. She continues to glare at her. Sara in this rejection has become bitter. Though she is not part of their group – while others are paired with boys – Sara isn’t. Sara therefore becomes a lonely bitter misfit. Katie’s just-missed future self.
The Roughing It program itself has oodles of parallels to Katie’s dilemma – the fact that she is stripped of all parental advice , the fact that their survival links them together by trust , the fact that real dangers crop up , the fact that they are foraging and learning to detect fauna and flora can – all be seen in symbolic analogy to her issues with Lisa with the most obvious being the solo. Check it out and see how many you can spot or let me know if I’m totally off the wall!
A very cool read from Sweet Dreams definitely ****