By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ten-year-old Della narrates Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s novel “Fighting Words,” and she is unflinchingly honest about what she’s been through.
“I am 10 years old. I’m going to tell you the whole story. Some parts are hard, so I’ll leave those for later. I’ll start with the easy stuff.”
The “easy stuff” turns out to be the story of how Della and her older sister, Suki, were watching TV when their mother blew up a motel room cooking meth and went to prison, leaving them first with her boyfriend, Clifton, and later with a rough-around-the-edges foster mother.
Anyone who has worked with kids will recognize the chip on Della’s shoulder for the well-honed defense mechanism it is. She cusses like a sailor (or like a kid forced to grow up too fast), substituting the word “snow” for anything that would be bleeped out on prime-time television.
Some may find Della’s perceptions to be overly mature at times, but it’s not unrealistic for children of addicts to take on adult roles and an experienced-beyond-their-years voice. And there are glimpses of the playful kid Della should have been allowed to be all along, most notably when she makes a friend named Nevaeh, a source of stability and joy. The two swim together at the Y and giggle uncontrollably over the fancy flavors of coffee creamer at the grocery store where Suki works. When Della buys a jug of creamer (Southern butter pecan) and plunks it down on Nevaeh’s desk, her friend deadpans, “I only like Northern butter pecan.” Moments like these give Della’s heartbreaking story a note of hope.
But those tough parts of the story still loom. As Della and her sister adjust to their foster home, readers learn that they fled Clifton’s house the night Suki arrived home early from the movies and found him sexually assaulting Della. And that, Della tells readers, still isn’t the hardest thing.
These reflections on the hard parts of the story make Della a believable narrator, one who has to ease her way into sharing details about the awful truth of what she and her sister survived. They also provide young readers with periodic offramps — a chance to set the story aside for a while, until they’re ready. For some readers, that might be the next day, while others may choose to wait until they’re a bit older to pick up the book again.
When they do, they’ll learn that while Della was the target of Clifton’s sexual assault just once, Suki was abused regularly, for years. That kind of trauma leaves lasting scars, and Suki, struggling with her mental health, attempts suicide. Though other novels for young readers address similar issues, the most upsetting plot elements often take place off the page. Della is more upfront, and while Suki’s ongoing abuse is described mostly in general terms, her suicide attempt plays out in full view of both Della and readers.
After Suki is hospitalized and begins to heal, Della also finds her way forward, summoning both strength and self-control as she stands up to a bra-snapping, back-pinching boy in her class and vows to use her voice to bring her abuser — and Suki’s — to justice. These sisters have been through a lot, but Della’s matter-of-fact narration manages to be as funny and charming as it is devastatingly sad. An author’s note explains that Bradley, too, is a survivor of sexual assault and offers potentially lifesaving resources to readers.
Make no mistake; this is a novel about trauma and the scars it leaves on bodies, minds and hearts. But more than that, it’s a book about resilience, strength and healing. For every young reader who decides to wait and read it when they’re a little older, there will be others for whom this is the exact book they need right now.