In Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival, three children living with their mother live in fear of her sudden anger and cruelty. The book is written as a letter from the eldest, Matthew, to the youngest, Emmy, telling her all that happened over the previous years because she is too young to remember it all. The story starts when he is thirteen, Callie is eleven, and Emmie, who has a different father, is just five. They live with their mother Nikki in south Boston. Nikki is neglectful, often going out all evening, and then coming back in the middle of the night, drunk or high, with a man. Nikki's relationships generally don't last long -- often not more than a night. She often gets into rages with her children, and acts recklessly, endangering their lives. But they have no one to turn to: their father and their aunt, who both live close by, know what Nikki is like, but they don't do anything about it. One day, when Matt and Carrie are out buying something at the local store, they see a parent shouting at a child, and another man confronts the parent. They watch in admiration to see an adult standing up for a child. They find out that his name is Murdoch, and Matt starts trying to track the man down. Through a strange set of circumstances, Nikki ends up dating Murdoch, and for a few months they are like a real family, but inevitably Nikki can't keep her emotions under control and Murdoch stops seeing her. After that, Nikki's behavior gets even worse, and Matt decides he has to do something to protect Emmy and Callie, and going to Murdoch is the obvious thing to do. However, the more Matt does to try to help his sisters, the angrier Nikki gets. We know from the start that the children will end up safely, but we don't know what will happen to Nikki or Murdoch.
Werlin's story has several themes. Matt takes on a great deal of responsibility for his sisters early on in life, and he pins a great deal of hope on Murdoch. Nikki is a terrible mother, but she also shows love towards her children, which makes her a more complex character. The other adults are also not just simple characters -- they can rise to challenges and they can also disappoint expectations. Both Matt and Callie are dealing with puberty and they have their own private concerns and hopes. The story deals with all these themes with sensitivity.
The form of the novel, an extended letter, makes the book distinctive, but it is also less believable. It is also difficult to get a sense of what makes Nikki act the ways she does. She has problems with her moods and substance abuse, but there are some signs that she becomes manic or in some ways out of touch with reality. Some of the major events in the plot happen surprisingly quickly, as if they were thrown in. One would think that in describing them, Matt would give more detail and say more about them. So the book as a whole does not quite cohere perfectly. However, it does give a serious and powerful treatment of major family problems, showing how intractable they can be, and how difficult it can be to intervene. Although this book deals with troubling problems, teens and young adults may find much in this novel to discuss.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.