Feminist Masterpiece on Teen Survival

It's not that you want to save Taylor; you know you can't. By the end of page two, Debra Busman has established a child character as complex and compelling as any adult. By the end of the novel Like a Woman, that complexity weaves gender, race, sexual orientation, social class and the particular ways that Taylor navigates daily power imbalances with all the resourcefulness of, well, lots of girls in tough situations. And isn't that the point? A lot of girls find themselves in tough situations. A lot of girls survive.

One supremely satisfying aspect of Like a Woman, is that the story is told episodically, the way memories actually occur. Told mostly in the third person, it also uses a mix of poetic first person passages, so the reader feels an undulating sense of presence in the character and connection to social circumstances. I'm partial to novels and memoirs written in this style, particularly because marginalized lives adhere in a far less linear way to standard social narratives.

Safety and money are among the first themes that young Taylor navigates, though safety is also inextricably linked to connection with the natural world - including her relationship with dogs. In one of the poetic passages, she conveys, "as a child, I believed we came from wolves, somehow lost, separated inside the city's mass, the children, that is. I had no ideas where adults came from, but I thought that children were all adopted... when the other kids informed me that we didn't come from wolves, several stands were broken from the fraying thread that held me to that place and time." She finds other strands, through the book, to reconnect her to a life beyond survival, but the connections are periodic. Her stories of ingenuity and loss are stunning.

Taylor's awareness of money and the need for it is a driving force in her life from page one, though she never has enough to live indoors full time, as a young person. Learning how to steal leads Taylor to an analysis of class and race that are more complex than many adults allow themselves to consider. As a young white girl, she works with a small group of Latinos to rob stores. The child thief, Taylor, is unsuspected, while the Latino kids provide the distraction. Though her mentor, Enrique, is old enough to go to war and die, she continues to hear his voice in her head, helping to frame current distributions of wealth as unjust, long after she loses him.

"'Yes chica,' she'd hear him say, "these books belong to you. Liberate one or two for me while you're at it. And, remember to share them with los ninos, okay? Someone's got to redistribute the wealth, eh mija!'"

Like a Woman is set in early 70s Los Angeles, though the story is utterly now. Queer homeless kids are still struggling today, and finding community and creativity against odds. The only additional thing I wanted from the story was more sex. The sex that goes wrong in the book is briefly described, and hauntingly brilliant. I wanted the sex that went right for Taylor to haunt me just as much.

It's unclear how far into Taylor's life the book brings us, but in the final chapter "Secondary Drowning" we see that even when life becomes stable for adult Taylor, she still sometimes struggles against the past's undertow. In a near drowning incident, she is able to save her girlfriend and dog from a rogue wave that should've claimed their lives, but as in youth, she struggles to save herself. She learns of a condition called "secondary drowning" from a park ranger. "You get a person out of the water, safe on shore. They're standing right in front of you, telling you they're fine. You see them breathing, talking, then ten minutes later they're dead." Yes, a person can drown on dry land. This is the final metaphor for Taylor's life that the reader is asked to consider. While Like a Woman is a story of survival, it's not one that glamorizes or erases the very real horrors of violence, misogyny, poverty and racism that girls face in America.

I very much identified with Taylor, through the novel, though my particular life and girlhood was not the same as hers in specific ways. We are all navigating the same social seas, however and it was gratifying to cheer for her ingenuity as I remembered my own teenage ingenuity, the survival of (many of) my friends. The triumphs of girls have long been unsung in popular culture. Like A Woman offers a literary portrait you will enjoy deeply to the last page and ponder pleasurably for a long time to come.