“Gem & Dixie” (Balzer & Bray 2017) by Sara Zarr is a story of two sisters who were once close, but now growing apart. Gem, the older sister has always taken care of Dixie, because their mother couldn’t even put food on the table and their father was absent. Now that they’re teens, Dixie is street-smart and popular, Gem is friendless and still trying to care for her family.
Zarr, a National Book Award Finalist, writes nuanced honest descriptions about relationships that are gripping. As Gem, she says, “[Dixie] wanted to pretend like Mom was another one of her friends, another girl with boyfriend drama and body issues and money problems who didn’t need to hear shit from anyone about how she should live her life.” Unfortunately, that’s what Mom think, too.
About Dixie, Gem says, “I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.”
With so few strokes Zarr brings to life secondary characters such as Gem’s in-school counselor: “Mr. Bergstrom leaned back and put his hands behind his head. I liked that about him, how relaxed he could be like the only thing in the world that he had to do was listen to me.”
It’s rough having an absent father, but it can be worse if he returns. Gem seems to be the only one who views the situation realistically. But the ever-so-errant father leaves something behind that allows the sisters to go on a road trip near their Seattle home. The adventures and people they meet bring Gem to the realization of what she must do. “I couldn’t think who I was without Dixie to take care of, or Dixie to avoid, or Dixie to be mad at. Dixie to feel hurt by, Dixie to feel jealous of.”
When an author speaks this well, I think it’s best to let her do most of the talking—about her book. In spite of having a totally different background, I saw so much of my sister and me in these sisters. If you have a sister, read this. If you want to understand sisters, read this. And read anything else by Sara Zarr, as well. You won’t be disappointed.
Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com