by Janna McMahan
Koehler Books, 2013
“I guess I just never really thought about how they live. I mean I’ve been downtown for years, and I supposed I just sort of think of them as background noise. You know they’re there, but you just tune them out.” These are the words of Emily–a twenty-something who is a bit directionless, single, and worried she isn’t keeping up with the young women with whom she graduated–when she learns more about the homeless youth in Austin. You see, Austin is a place that has a great party scene, and working at a bar and being promiscuous suits her just fine; she doesn’t care that she’s different from her corporate America-loving parents. Really, Emily’s made her own choices, and I say, “more power to her and her happiness.”
But when she’s made aware of the homeless youth population in Austin, she can’t look away ever again. Children who are living on the streets because they are mentally ill and their parents can’t deal with it; kids who aged out of the foster care system; kids who leave home because they have younger siblings and want to be less of a burden on their parents in a down economy. Janna McMahan shows the reader an in-depth look at the homeless youth to give them a better idea of why it happened, why the kids are tattooed, if they use drugs, and how they survive.
McMahan plays off of the reader’s expectations and shows us we’re wrong. Meet Lorelei, a young girl who arrives in Austin. She’s starving; she’s alone. When Austin is flooded and Emily, on her way to her own parents house in a safe area, finds Lorelei, “Emily couldn’t, absolutely wouldn’t take this girl to her parents’ house.” Who knows if Lorelei is a thief, violent, a drug user, “Crazy”…Here, Emily echoes our own thoughts. It’s really impossible to trust Lorelei to the point where she actually began to annoy me. When Emily takes Lorelei in for a few days, when David (the man who runs the homeless youth shelter) tries to give her a place to stay, when she runs away and tells others she doesn’t need them (clearly she does if she’s taking things from them): Lorelei can be completely frustrating and hard to understand. Even worse, she adds that her mother used to take her shopping at the mall and send Lorelei to summer camps, so the reader is left to believe that Lorelei is a selfish, ungrateful girl.
Emily’s mother Barbara serves as a foil to the homeless youth. She acknowledges that she and her husband bought things at a rapid pace, but when the economy collapsed, they were left with debt. In order to survive, she and Gerald must forge ahead, but they don’t do a great job. They’re still trying to pay off three cars, one of which is an enormous SUV. Essentially, because Barbara and Gerald have credit, they are able to remain in a home. Barbara is critical of the “gutter punks” with their facial tattoos, piercings, and bad smells. She tries to be helpful when she launders Lorelei’s clothes after the flood, but for the most part she talks badly abut the girl while she’s not around (what kind of person destroys her whole life by getting a tattoo on her face).
McMahan masterfully leads the reader to this place in order to prove her wrong. It isn’t until near the end of the book that the real reasons for Lorelei’s homelessness emerge, which left me feeling like a bad person, like I am just like everyone else who walks by children without a place to eat, sleep, or be loved. Homelessness continues to be a problem (of course), and Anonymity doesn’t pretend to solve the problems put forth in its pages, which makes this mainstream novel a more challenging read for those who might not have expected to be enriched.