Bitchin' Blog Posts
Title: Stealing Heaven
Author: Elizabeth Scott
Publication Info: Harper Teen May 2008
Genre: Young Adult
I read this book in a marathon of reading in 1 day. Considering how many things I do in a day, that’s saying a lot. The informal grading rubric that I use sometimes involves whether I have to take the book out of my work bag and read it at home, when I’m not on the bus or waiting for the subway, whether I stop doing things to read more, whether I bring the book in the car with me to read at red lights. The number of places I bring a book outside of the seat on the bus or the seat on the train doesn’t necessarily lift the book’s grade, but knowing that I’m happily reading something truly compelling means that I question what it is and what the book is doing so well that hooks me and hooks me bad.
I totally got honked at at TWO green lights (impatient Jersey drivers) today because I wanted to finish this book. I toted it in the car, I read it at my desk, I followed this book around all day because I could not stop wanting to know what happened next. Scott sustains a lot of the emotional and external tension through the book in such a way that it had little ups and little downs, but was always escalating, to the point that I thought I was going to have to read while peeking through my fingers. I knew what was going to happen, sort of, but I hoped it didn’t, even though I knew it probably would, etc.
Dani is a thief. Her mom is a thief. Dani has never had another life except as backup, research assistant, con artist, and thief. Their preferred target is silver, and their modus is to hop from town to town, targeting the biggest houses and the shortest route possible to the silver. They fence it, go shopping, live well, then move on to the next town.
But when Dani’s mom chooses the beach town of Heaven, Dani finds herself longing for things she hasn’t allowed herself to articulate before: she wants to stay. Have real friends. Who use her real name. And who aren’t potential targets for her mom’s next theft. That’s a tall order, because autonomy is one subject in which Dani’s mom hasn’t really given her a great deal of instruction. One of the most descriptive passages of Dani’s narration explains:
For silver I learned to read,write, work numbers. For silver I learned the name of every plantation from Virginia to Florida…. The story of my life can be told in silver: in chocolate mills, serving spoons, and services for twelve. The story of my life has nothing to do with me. The story of my life is things. Things that aren’t mine, that won’t ever be mine.
That one line makes me think of Prufrock.
There’s a good number of romances that glamorize thieves, but if you’ve ever had the violated feeling of being robbed yourself, knowing someone was in your home, helping themselves to your things and invading without your knowledge or permission and stealing what’s precious to you, it’s not too glamorous. And while Dani’s mother has a very concrete and distant way of looking at her potential victims, and at humanity at large, Dani finds herself at an intersection between her growing desire for something different and more in her life, her growing shame and consciousness of what it is that she’s doing, and her growing sense of panic that she’s not suited for or even good enough for anything, or anyone, else. That intersection creates a challenge for the author, and Scott admirably balances Dani’s past crime and her present moral crisis so that the reader can root for her and want her to want to change for her own good, even while acknowledging that Dani is really, really good at what she does.
Dani is the center of the novel, and since it’s YA, the first person narrative is mostly about Dani’s learning to choose her own path and figuring out who she is and wants to be in the period of a few weeks just before she sets her feet in motion down that path. There is a romance, but the person she finds herself falling for, Greg, is as much a catalyst as he is a foil, though he’s a marvelously sweet and considerate guy.
Scott has some great comic skills, particularly in the dialogue. Dani struggles to remember to keep herself, well, to herself and answers Greg with questions nearly every time they speak. After a few meetings between them, their dialogue was so snappy and sharp I wanted him to find her and talk to her, no matter what it meant for the plot. Plot progress? Acquisition of autonomy and self-reliance? Pah! Want sexy dialogue!
One interesting element I just realized: the reader never learns her mother’s name, and all the way to the end of the story her mother never lets go of her life and her dream of shopping for target houses, shopping for opportunities to steal other people’s stuff, then shopping with the money she’s fenced. That points to my biggest frustration with the story, though it is realistic: Dani’s mother doesn’t ever truly recognize the depth of her selfishness and neglect – which is, as I said, totally in line with the behavior pattern of a selfish person. While there are small moments where Dani’s mother does demonstrate that she might be thinking of Dani and her future, most of the time Dani lives her life according to her mother’s wishes because without her mother, no one would want her. The degree to which she doubted her mother’s love made those small moments seem small and brittle in comparison to the true, though brief, overtures of friendship Dani navigates in her first weeks in Heaven. No one, but no one, has ever stood up for her, or made her feel valued for who she was, not what she could steal.
Ultimately, Dani pays the bigger price for her mother’s choices in their lives, and has a good bit of harm to confront when she finally decides that she can be in control of her life instead of her mother. Oddly, her mother is half of the reason Dani ends up in the driver’s seat literally and figuratively, but her mother never fully appreciates what makes Dani happy. She mostly insists on reminding Dani that whatever it is that Dani might do, it won’t make her mother happy.
But because Dani’s decision to own herself and her future comes so close to the end, and the change is pushed by such draining circumstances, I’m left not entirely confident in Dani’s self-ownership. I’m hopeful, and I want her to ride off into the sunset with Greg but I’m not sure that she will. And I wished any one of the people who hurt and neglected Dani had experienced at least one moment of ownership of their own responsibility.
While the ending is hopeful, it’s not a bonafide happily ever after; after being on the outside for so long, Dani’s focus is simple: home and belonging, with belongings that are her own, in her own home. The price that Dani has to pay for that home of belongings is a high one, and it’s a powerful story. Acquiring those things when it means rupturing everything she’s known until then is akin to stealing – stealing her future from her mother, the one who taught her to steal.