Werlin, Nancy. The Rules of Survival. Speak, 2006. 273 pages. Tr. $13.91, ISBN: 978-0-329-64286-0
Plot: Matthew Walsh is writing a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, to try to explain what has happened in their lives.. At 13, Matthew had become the protector of his two little sisters, Emmy, a toddler, and Callie, who is two years younger than he. Their home life is terrifying, their mother, Nikki, is dangerous and unpredictable, creating a highly charged and frightening atmosphere at home. Out of desperation, he carefully works to get help, but most of his efforts end in disappointment and fear.
His first hope is Murdoch, a kind man who had made a strong impression on Matthew at a neighborhood store. He ends up dating Nikki, and Matthew thinks the set up is the key for the family’s safety. But Nikki eventually shows her true colors and the relationship breaks up. Nikki gets her revenge by going after Murdoch’s friend, Julie. She lands in jail and the kids find a safe haven in family members’ homes. When Nikki gets out, she kidnaps Emmy, leading up to a showdown between Matthew and Nikki.
Critical Evaluation: Although there are problems with the story’s set up (the idea is that he’s writing his “rules of survival” so that Emmy will be able to protect herself, but this is really just a retelling of a what happened). Although it seems to want to be realistic, there are elements that place it in the genre of horror or thriller books.
The character of Nikki will resonate long after the reader finishes the book. Her erratic moods and her terrifying behavior – she is a powder keg just waiting to explode – make for a good story (she is quite clearly the villain), but occasionally she seems one-dimensionally bad. She flirts, she can “act normal,” but Matthew doesn’t have a shred of love or respect for her and she seems bereft of a single good quality.
Those qualms aside, this is an extremely fast-paced and gripping story with an emotional edge. Werlin does a wonderful job of capturing the fear and hesitation of a young man who has been scarred by a truly frightening parent.
This is a dramatic book, with a plot that moves quickly and believable characters even in their most extreme emotional states.
Reader’s Annotation: A 17-year-old boy knows that he must leave his family soon in order to escape his dangerous mother, but how can he leave his sisters behind?
Author bio: An easterner now living in Boston, Nancy Werlin was a disaffected teenager who couldn’t wait to get out of school. She was also a huge reader, devouring about twelve books a week – Faulkner, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. A graduate of Yale, Werlin was a technical writer before she began to write books.
Werlin has written suspenseful thrillers, fantasy romances, and realistic fiction. She is probably most famous for Impossible, a book about a girl who has to complete seemingly impossible tasks to end a family curse, and The Rules of Survival, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Curriculum Ties: Health, English
Describe Matthew’s bind – ask “ what would you do in that situation?”
Focus on the crazy behavior of the mother, talk about the abuse.
Reading Level: 4th grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Child abuse.
Challenge Response: While there are some very harsh, even terrifying scenes in this book, the case should be made that this is about kids coping with fear. The focus is on escaping a bad situation.
Also, this book has been recommended in highly regarded magazines, with starred reviews in Booklist, Horn Book, and School Library Journal, and the author is a highly respected writer in the YA field.
Why Included: It is gripping, has incredibly well-developed characters, and a plot that emphasizes strength and resilience.