Friday, February 17, 2012

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

Matt and his sisters, Callie and Emmy, are always starring in a play directed by fear.  Just one small wrong move can set their mother Nikki off, and lead to the most dangerous of circumstances.  She has no qualms about leaving her young family to fend for themselves most nights in South Boston, and that's the best case scenario.  When Nikki chooses to lavish her presence upon her three children, they can almost count on terrors like finding a kitchen knife pressed to their throats, being beaten with a bag of seafood, or even taking a terrifying detour into oncoming traffic if they can't placate their mercurial mother.  Despite having a father who is still involved in their lives in small ways and an aunt who lives in the downstairs apartment, nobody steps in to protect Matt, Callie, and Emmy until a stranger named Murdoch McIlvane enters their lives one unexpected night at the Cumberland Farms store.  It is then that Matt begins to dream that things won't be like this forever, that he begins to believe that life could be more than living in fear of his mother. 

Matt, the eldest at fifteen, is the story's narrator, and a good one at that.  Matt knows what it is to live in fear and to want to escape, but he knows he can't leave without his two sisters who he will protect at any cost.  Despite the odds, though, Matt still hasn't given up hope that their dangerous circumstances could change, that their father could man up even though he's almost as terrified of unstable Nikki as the kids are or that Aunt Bobbie could step in when she hears the commotion upstairs.  It's this outside hope and other reasons that even Matt can't give voice to, that he searches for an ally in Murdoch, and finds one.  Matt, with all his hopes and the fear that encroaches upon them, is the perfect window into the lives of abused kids.  Werlin uses his narration to great effect, giving us a sense of just how easily and random it was to attract Nikki's senseless rage and how it's lurking at the edge of even the most trivial encounter.

The Rules of Survival is a page-turner of a book that will catch readers up in its twists and turns.  It's a frighteningly realistic portrayal of abuse, how easy it is for kids to be trapped by it when adults that should care do nothing.  Matt, Callie, and Emmy's story is ultimately one of change and of redemption, but it's one that makes you wonder and worry all the kids for whom it's not.

(No disclaimer needed - this one I done bought for myself!)


  1. I was struck, when I read this one, just how powerless the adults were. Sure, some of them just didn't take action, but some really had very little choice to take action. And Nikki knew how to cover up her behavior.

    I have a friend whose sister is this kind of abusive to her 13 year old daughter. No one can do anything about it. Everyone in the family, from my friend to her parents to the little girl's father and his family, have called in to CPS and the cops. When they come out to the house, the mother puts on a perfect act, and then the police and CPS start saying that all the reports are just hearsay. The mother convinces the authorities that her parents and siblings are just out to get her. And for years, everyone was afraid to act because the mother threatened to disappear if anyone tried to take her child away, and she would have, easily. They only acted once she was in legal trouble for another situation and was forced to stay in the area, and when they acted, absolutely nothing came of it. Now, the mother has another daughter, a one-year-old with Down's Syndrome, and the cycle starts all over. It's a frustrating and horrible situation that no one can do anything about.

    Knowing about all that made it interesting to see this book from two points of view - both of the kids and of the adults who were in the periphery.

    1. THis book sounds positively chilling. THanks for the review.

  2. Wow, what a story! The terrifying thing is there are plenty of kids who live in fear just like that.

  3. Sounds good! Nancy Werlin isn't my favorite author of all time, but she always dials up the suspense like whoa.

  4. I remember being a little underwhelmed by The Rules of Survival when I read it. Your review is making me wonder if I should go back and reread it, to see if there's something I missed all those years ago...