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She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017, 257 pp
You know how your reading seems to fall into themes or common subject matter sometimes? It is so mysterious and esoteric to me how that happens. This is the second book in a week that falls in the theme I will name "Girls Gone Gritty" or possibly "When Bad Things Happen To Good Girls." Which do you think is best? I like the first one.
Darcey Steinke's Sister Golden Hair was the first of these, but 11-year-old Polly McCluskey of She Rides Shotgun has it much worse. She walks out of middle-school one afternoon to find her father, who has been in prison since she was six; tattooed, head shaved, washed-out blue gunfighter eyes. He orders her into his car and though she is scared, has the urge to run and scream for help, she gets in. "What else could I ever do?" she thinks.
Within a couple weeks with him she learns that her mother and step-father have been murdered, she learns how to be tough and how to fight, and she is pretty sure her father is protecting her. The chapters alternate between Polly's viewpoint and that of ex-convict Nate McCluskey.
This is a crime thriller and it moves along so fast that you are amazed at how much of the backstory you have learned while it seemed you were only reading one action sequence after another. In order to get out of prison, Nate made himself the target of a dangerous gang. There is a bounty on his head that includes his ex-wife and Polly. The gang has members inside and outside of prison with connections to drugs, robbery, and all manner of violence. Nate figures he is smart enough to protect Polly but he has to stay alive to do so.
The story is set in and around Los Angeles. I know my city is no exception when it comes to crime but I didn't know there was a depot for illegal drugs right in my own suburb. I still wish I didn't know that. But this was the most exciting book I have read in a long time, much better even than almost any movie.
The relationship that develops between Polly and her dad is what kept me going emotionally. She becomes an amazingly brave and loyal girl in just a few months. I wouldn't want to undergo what she did, but what female wouldn't want to be as equipped to take care of herself?
I don't recommend She Rides Shotgun to sensitive readers. It is guaranteed to upset them. But, as the front cover flap summary says, the book "is a propulsive, gritty, and emotionally gripping novel that upends even our most long-held expectations about heroes, villains, and victims." If you can stomach Game of Thrones, you can get through this one.