Summary: Sisters Beth and Kaya are inexorably linked by their shared childhoods and the illness and death of their father. But when Kaya starts pulling away, using drugs and becoming a sex worker, Beth is left wondering how she and their mom can reach out to Kaya and get her to come home again. What they don’t know is that Kaya’s childhood also included years of abuse at the hands of a neighbour, and the shame Kaya feels over events she couldn’t control prevents her from telling her family what happened. Determined not to lose Kaya, Beth and her mother hold onto their love for her and are determined to help her find her way back to the life they share.
Number of Pages: 222
Age Range: 16-18
Review: Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries is billed as being about Kaya’s journey to becoming a sex worker and it is about that, but what struck me most was how it was the story of two girls instead of one. Dealing with the long-term illness and then death of their father, sisters Beth and Kaya cope in different ways. Beth takes an interest in magic and also overeats to suppress her feelings, and Kaya finds solace in an elderly neighbour who listens to her woes with rapt attention.
Two girls, two separate grief responses, except Kaya’s leads her into the hands of a child abuser who pretends to be her best friend in order to gain her trust and make her do horrible things, Beth’s response, on the other hand, leads to wounds that are self-inflicted. They’re both caught up in the silence of being unable to express what they have gone through.
Repressed for years, when Kaya is reminded of the abuse that took place she finds solace in heroin and becomes friends with a sex worker named Sarah. Kaya becomes a sex worker herself to earn money for drugs, living in downtown Vancouver at a time when women are disappearing mysteriously off the streets. Even though she is told by Sarah to go home on several occasions, Kaya’s feelings of guilt and shame over the past lead her to seek escape and to undervalue her worth as a human being. She feels like she won’t be able to connect with her mother and sister, and is ashamed to tell them what happened when she was younger.
Beth and her mother are quite determined to get Kaya back though, and once Beth figures out about Kaya’s abuse, she finds Kaya to let her know she is still loved and supported. It’s not an easy road to recovery from her heroin addiction and giving up her life as a sex worker, but de Vries provides a positive example of female support with Beth and Kaya’s friends all rallying around her to help her through.
There were so many aspects of de Vries’ book I loved. The blend of fact and fiction. The devout love and determination on the part of Kaya’s family, and how Beth’s interest in magic is heart-breaking, because she and her sister both needed some magic to stop their dad from dying.
Just a word of warning about the memorable quotes. You may need to read the whole book for some of them to make sense. de Vries uses a style for Kaya’s part of the story that takes time to acclimate to, and reading random quotes from her parts are likely to be confusing out of context if you haven’t had the chance to read and understand what de Vries is doing. I loved how de Vries uses language style choices to convey distance from Kaya’s own experiences. It’s confusing at first, but becomes genius.
Frankly though, the Afterword makes the story. de Vries opens up about loosely basing Rabbit Ears on the life of her sister Sarah who sadly was abused, had a drug addiction and was a sex worker until she disappeared in 1998, killed by Robert Pickton. de Vries writes her sister into Kaya’s life. Like author Judie Oron, de Vries draws on experiences from her own life to create a well-informed, fictional story. Her writing is simply beautiful, and her characters will capture your heart.
“After the first time, I lay awake in bed, running through it in my mind: the teachers splaying out the cards, Ben hesitating and finally sliding one out, looking at it and holding it face down against his chest, the teacher putting the cards down in a stack and asking someone to cut the deck. After that, it was hard to get the steps quit right, except for the last one, the one where Mr. Duncan said, the first time, ‘Is it the nine of hearts?’ and Ben’s whole body gathered itself into a whoop of joy. ‘It is!’ he said, flourishing the card so that the whole class could see.
And it was.
I knew it was just a trick. But it seemed like something else. It seemed like the magic of Narnia or Middle Earth. It seemed like Mr. Duncan had special powers. I dug an old deck of cards out of the games cupboard and set myself to learning how to shuffle.” – Beth’s reaction to her teacher Mr. Duncan performing a card trick from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, pages 85-86
“The crisp air brings instant tears, as the world, the real place where you’re standing – Earth – compels you, woos you with a stunted tree, a few red leaves still hanging on, with the blue sky, when you look up, with a dog’s face in the window of a car, tongue lolling.” – Kaya from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, page 147
“The innocence of mothers and sisters and friends revolted you. Only the innocence of animals would do. You would come home from that locked door and walk into your house and fall to your knees as Sybilla bounded up to you. She filled your arms. Her fur enveloped your face. You breathed in dog. And – when you could find her – cat.” – Kaya from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, page 187
“In the meeting you look around. What would Raven see? You have no idea, but this time when you look, you see how crumpled some of the people look, and not just their clothes or uncombed hair or smudged makeup, but them. Several look as if they have been crying for weeks, and one looks as if she’ll soon have her fingers gnawed down to the knuckle. Despite this, you see them chatting with one another, reaching out. As you look around the room, three people meet your eyes and make the effort to smile at you. You cast your mind back over the past four days and remember the stories. You glossed over them then, but now you replay them for yourself. You remember the friendliness. And you remember how you have snubbed every single person who tried to talk to you. But still they smile.
At the end of the meeting you collect yourself, put the tissue box with the others on the side table and say goodbye to three people on the way out. You discover real empathy in their eyes. You hope they can see it in yours.” – Kaya at a meeting for addicts from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, pages 205-206
“The therapist does not ask. She just looks. She just sits there like a big person-shaped brick. Directing and redirecting. Asking about everything else, every single little thing. Until, at last, you break.
‘That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it,’ you scream, on your feet now. ‘It felt good. Yeah, sure, It felt good. It felt bad. It felt disgusting. It hurt.’ And you stand, like an animal, on the far side of the room from the therapist, who sits and looks at you calmly, as if the world has not just collapsed on you both.
Not like a brick, more like a great big sponge, the therapist sits and looks at you and soaks up the horror of it, soaks it up without getting tainted by it. No, a sponge isn’t right either.
‘He had to make you like it,’ she says, once your breathing has slowed, once you are edging back toward your chair, ‘or you would never have gone back.’
You sink back onto your chair and stare at her. The truth of what she has just said, so obvious. ‘He had to make your like it, or you would have never gone back.’ In that moment, the two parts join and become one. The tea, the toys, the roses, the stories. And what happened down in that basement room.
With that comes a glimmer. Mr. G was not kind. He was never, not for one single moment, kind.” – Conversation between Kaya and her therapist about her abuse from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, pages 208-209
“This morning, Beth and Mom and I went to the memorial for the missing women. I really went for Sarah, since I didn’t know any of the others. Beth and Mom went to be there for me. We snuck past all those TV camera, but at the entrance, three women were burning sweeetgrass in a great big shell and smudging everyone, sweeping a feather up and down near our bodies. I washed myself from head to toe with that smoke. I’ll bet I had ancestors who did that too. It was crazy. While I was doing it I cried and cried, and the woman with the feather just smiled a small smile. I felt something like a hairline crack forming right through my heart, and that smoke slipped in through that crack and flushed some of the black guck out of there.” – Kaya from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, page 213
“I wanted to tell a story about a girl who went through what my sister went through, but survived, a story about a girl who broke the silence that was holding her prisoner, a story about a group of girls who paid attention, who reached out. I believe in these possibilities for Kaya and for each one of us.” – Afterword from Rabbit Ears by Maggie de Vries, page 219