Review: In Trouble

In Trouble
Ellen Levine
Carolrhoda Lab
$17.95, hardcover, 208 pages
Also available as an ebook ($12.95)
Release date: Sep. 1, 2011

Tackling serious topics can be tricky for a young adult novel. Writers can easily fall into a trap of presenting one side of a debate thinly cloaked in character and plot devices. The novel can become a parody of the Afterschool Special and focus on its message rather than its story.

In Trouble by Ellen Levine is not one of those books. Although teen pregnancy is at the center of her story, Levine’s characters drive the story. The 1950s New York setting helps remove issues surrounding teen pregnancy from a modern reader’s world, but Jamie Morse, Levine’s 16-year-old protagonist, could easily eat lunch in any high school cafeteria today.

Spoilers ahead.

Readers meet Jamie during a phone call with her best friend, Elaine. Elaine needs Jamie’s help to sneak off for a weekend with her college boyfriend. Jamie’s views of teen sex are colored by her recent date-rape experience. As if that weren’t enough for Jamie to deal with, her father will be returning home from 11 months in prison. He was sentenced for  contempt of Congress as part of the McCarthy hearings.

The McCarthy connection could serve as a novel on its own that may not belong in In Trouble. The conviction speaks to how Jamie’s father thinks and what his family supports means in the larger context of the novel, and it serves to flesh out Paul, Jamie’s would-be boyfriend and editor of their school’s newspaper. Those aspects could have been developed differently.

When Elaine discovers she’s pregnant, Jamie contacts an older cousin for information about abortions. Soon, her entire family is involved, although Jamie, like her father, refuses to name names beyond assuring her family she is not the pregnant girl.

A less talented writer would use the family discussions as a focus for the novel’s debate, presenting one (or several) sides of the argument. Because Levine has a gift for breathing life into even minor characters, the family discussions are natural. No character stands out as a straw man.

Jamie’s aunt reveals a long-ago abortion to Jamie in confidence. And In Trouble picks up a slight lecturing tone as Aunt Shelia tells Jamie that pregnancy doesn’t happen only to loose girls and premarital sex does not make Jamie’s friend a slut. The sentiment is echoed in Levine’s afterword, which also adds historical context for the book.

Elaine holds strong to her belief that her suddenly absent boyfriend will marry her and they’ll raise the baby together, but eventually her secret becomes apparent to her parents. Elaine is sent to a Catholic home for unwed mothers, a decision Jamie finds hard to understand.

Jamie’s difficulty intensifies when she discovers the rape has led to her own pregnancy. Since she never told her family about the attack, she feels she cannot tell them about the pregnancy. She tells Paul, who goes with her to a doctor for a pregnancy test. The two pretend to be married in order to receive the test.

After a failed attempt to get an abortion — the unlicensed abortionist discovers Jamie isn’t 18 — Jamie ends up telling her parents. Jamie’s family is the polar opposite of Elaine’s, and her parents help her get an abortion. Shortly after the procedure, Jamie learns Elaine was forced to give her baby up for adoption.

The book ends somewhat abruptly. Elaine and Jamie’s friendship is irrevocably changed by their different decisions. Jamie’s relationships with Paul and her father are at the beginning of something new or something to be mended. Levine doesn’t continue with Jamie’s reactions to the abortion, which works for the novel. Jamie’s reactions aren’t something to come and go in the space of a few weeks. Levine told the story she wanted to tell and leaves the next pieces to the reader’s imagination.

The publisher lists the interest level as ages 12 to 18. In Trouble may not be appropriate for the younger part of that age group who may not be ready for discussions the book is sure to engender. Jamie and Elaine represent different answers to teen pregnancy, although the novel comes down more on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate because Jamie tells the story. If Elaine narrated In Trouble, the book may have come down more on the pro-life side. Levine’s afterword details her own perspective on the debate.

More than being a pro-choice or pro-life book, In Trouble’s main message is one of support for and from family and friends. The characters behave like real teenagers of any time would, and the story flows naturally.

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