This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 17.2.
True Blue is a truly disturbing novel. Deborah Ellis has again delved into the psychological depths of youth and produced a story that will force readers to look inside themselves and ask—really consider—what they would do in Jess’s situation.
Jess and her best friend Casey are inseparable, but when Casey is arrested for the murder of a camper at the summer camp where they were both counsellors, Jess’s behaviour seems odd. Readers would like to tell themselves that—unlike Jess—they would never turn their back on a friend, that they would always stick up for what they knew to be right… but Jess’s situation and responses are both psychologically valid and troubling. She turns her back on her friend; she becomes part of the abhorred “in” crowd, “the Cactus gang,” who use her to publish damaging rumours about Casey; she refuses to speak to those people in her community who try—however superficially—to help her. As an adult reader, my question was strongly: where are the concerned adults in this case? Why are the parents, the teachers, the student counsellors not helping Jess, not recognizing what is going on in her mind and emotions? The entire novel is a litany of Jess’s internal cries for help, her running from a situation that is just too much for her although—it turns out—largely of her own making.
In the end, Casey is vindicated and released, but the friendship has dissolved. An added component in its dissolution is Jess’s knowledge that Casey’s “weirdness” protects her from any pain associated with Jess’s betrayal as much as it does from the slander of the Cactus gang. Casey’s character is a carefully borderline depiction of an Asperger’s child, or someone with a similarly distanced yet obsessive response to her world. All she cares about are her bugs, her plans to become an entomologist, and Jess repeatedly comments on Casey’s emotional distance as well as her seeming perfection in the eyes of the adult world. There is a marked tone of jealousy in Jess’s comments about Casey that further complicates their relationship, and Jess’s dysfunctional relationship with her bi-polar mother does not help, especially in light of her mother’s almost-worshipping opinion of Casey.
Ultimately, we are left with a protagonist who has learned the depths of her own weakness, and has run from her troubles. The novel opens with her narrating the past events to a customer of a seedy highway diner where she is waitressing at four in the morning: this is the only life Jess has left after the novel closes. As an adult reader, I was left wondering how a teen would respond to the text, with absolutely no way to guess. I was troubled by my inability to discern what would be most powerful for the adolescent reader, distinct from the narrative weaknesses that the text also exhibits: Jess’s summer-camp diary is written in the present tense, which is both unlikely and structurally problematic; adults who should be more sympathetic or understanding turn on Jess in a way that seems improbable; the one teacher who stands up for truth is taken away by the police in a narratively contrived scene at school… These small weaknesses, balanced against the powerful intent and impact of Jess’s story, make me hesitant to recommend the novel unreservedly, but I would certainly hand it out to mature young readers, partially in the hope of soliciting their critical opinions.