Review by Louise Brecht
Penguin Teen, Penguin Random House, 2018
296 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-73526-261-4
Ages 14-16, Grades 9-11
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance
They think I got it from an armadillo. Isn’t that the most fucked-up thing you’ve ever heard? I mean, seriously. It’s the twenty-first century. Who gets leprosy anymore? No one. That’s who. Unless you, like, live in a gutter covered in filth or were in the Bible, or unless you’re me.
Abby Furlowe’s in shock. She’s seventeen. She’s naturally blonde. She’s a self-absorbed beauty queen who’s spent a lot of time mapping out her senior year at her Texas high school: cool besties, hot guys, great parties, good grades. Cheerleading? She has to make the squad to be eligible for the scholarship that will cement her future. Acting school at the University of Southern California beckons; so do the bright lights beyond. Lesser beings are not on Abby’s radar. They’re not, that is, until she’s diagnosed with Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy), until she’s shipped off to small town Louisiana for extended treatment. For the girl who likes to taunt those she considers beneath her, life will never be the same.
The disease, even without its historical connotations, is a compelling catalyst for change. Abby is traumatized, pre-diagnosis, by the ulcers and skin lesions that disfigure her body, mar the perfection of her face, and after, by the realities of nerve damage and muscle weakness that are its residual effects. Ashley Little’s authorial research is evident in the facts and truths of the illness that she weaves through Confessions of a Teenage Leper. Collectively, they add context and currency to her protagonist’s affliction. Abby is tantalized by the fact that Hansen’s can be controlled, terrorized by the price she will have to pay. Her intensely personal conflict then, is the primary one that drives the plot forward. Her privileged former-self is at war with a new and tenuous self, but it’s the one Abby must realize if she is to address the social stigmas that still cloak the disease once known as leprosy.
She voices her own story. In its telling, Abby doesn’t gloss over her appearance, (mis)behaviours, consequent losses, her feelings (or lack of them), or their evolution over the course of her stay at Carville, Louisiana. Mean girl or not, I empathize with Little’s protagonist. Her wry sense of humour is resonant. “And me, lucky, lucky me,” she tells the reader, “I’m in the 5 percent of the population that is not immune to the bacteria.” Her direct approach is engaging. Fresh love in the face of deformity, odd new friendships, and her brother’s own coming-of-sexual-age story spice up an arc of action that’s interlaced with just enough self-reflection to make me want to keep turning pages.
I do, however, want to know more about Scott, Abby’s new flame, and Jane, the adult New Yorker she befriends during treatment. He’s an “at risk” youth from Oklahoma, a hottie cadet whose presence at the Carville military camp is never fully explained. She’s a fellow patient who is able, somewhat incongruently, to support herself on a cheesecake waitress’s salary and still return to Louisiana each year for lengthy check-ups. I’m looking for little details really, ones that would make them feel more like real people than (slightly) under-developed complementary characters.
It’s kismet that Little chooses to close this portion of Abby’s life at her high school Prom. Old world and new collide in a reality that’s shaded by Hansen’s disease but lightened with promise. I wasn’t quite ready for the story to end where it does. In part, it’s because the book’s chapter-less format keeps me riveted to the storyline. There’s no doubt that the narrator’s voice in this dialogue-rich text is keenly perceptive. Abby Furlowe may be an alias, but I want to believe that her character has much more to say.
Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.