By: Shauna Kelley
Publisher: Lucky Press
Publication Date: November 2011
Reviewed by: Pamela Victor
Review Date: December 2010
“When Max and I were younger we lived in a little town surrounded by a very big desert. Well, it wasn’t really a desert, but it was nothingness in the form of red clay field and magnolia trees.” Max and Menna are twins coming of age in a hard world, grappling to survive in an alcoholic, abusive household in rural Alabama. The story hops and skips fluidly between characters and through time to knit together a collective history of neglect, ignorance, bonding and, ultimately, love. As different as they are – Max is intellectual, Menna is all heart and emotion – their connection is the life raft in their turbulent childhood.
“When Menna and I were young, we were only faintly aware of how the rest of the town looked at us with a mixture of pity and disgust…we never knew there was another way.” Readers first meet Max and Menna when they are seven, waking up with matted hair and dirty clothes on the floor in their sweltering attic bedroom - their ordinary circumstance. They live with a mother who, on the rare occasion she addresses them, refers to them merely as mistakes. They live in a derelict household of constant fear and routine hunger. They live in abject poverty and neglect, a fictionalized childhood like the one Jeannette Walls writes about in her memoir, The Glass Castle. Max and Menna survive through small and infrequent acts of humanity from their otherwise mean-spirited older sister. But mostly they eke through their childhood due to their twin bond and their friendship with a Native American boy named Nick, from whom they learn what love and friendship look like.
“There were so many nights like these when all we had were each other.” Max and Menna attempt as children, and still later as adults, to make sense of the abusive relationships that serve as their foundation. With painful simplicity, the author displays how abused and neglected children see the world around them as they try to figure out what is right while being nursed on a constant bottle of wrong. Shauna Kelley is a skilled writer who weaves a thought-provoking story with a compelling narrative and at times a lyrical style. With a hauntingly light touch, Kelley quietly builds the tension as the story progresses. Though the reader may be lulled by the tale, the uncomfortably persistent sensation that tragedy is around the corner cannot be ignored for long.
Max and Menna is categorized as both YA (young adult) and adult fiction. Readers should be cautioned that the material may be best suited for late-teens and above. Although Kelley handles tough topics with unerring tact and discretion, the story deals with emotional, physical and sexual abuse, classism, and the harsh realities of racism. With adult guidance, this novel could provide provocative and intense discussions with teens who would be challenged to walk a while in Max and Menna’s worn shoes and ponder how would they fare growing up in a world of habitual meanness and forgotten birthdays. As the author wrote a shorter version of this novel when she was still in her teens, readers may wonder in what part of the author were Max and Menna born.
“Birthdays in my house were nonexistent,” Max narrates and later reflects. “I wasn’t sure they existed. They were like Christmas and Easter and all the other things the kids at school got excited about, but just fell away from us like any other day.” Despite their harsh lives, Max and Menna can be remarkably uplifting. Though there are no cakes and presents, the story remains a celebration of perseverance, resilience and love.
Quill says: Like a flower growing in the crack of a sidewalk, Max and Menna is a lyrical, compelling narrative of survival and love.