Drummer Girl by K. Bass
Bass, Karen. Drummer Girl. Regina: Coteau Books, 2011. Print.
Writing for teens is an exercise in walking a tight-rope. Stories must reflect the current realities of their world, which is sometimes difficult for an adult writer to access directly, while offering commentary on that world that avoids didacticism. Karen Bass achieves both feats with ease in her novel Drummer Girl.
This multifaceted and nuanced novel tells the story of an intelligent, self-possessed, and spunky girl, Sidney, or Sid for short, who tries to stay true to herself, her friends, and her musical passion in a world where it's hard for a girl to just be herself. "I hate being a girl! It's crap. All of it! The game is made for us to lose and I'm sick of playing it". Sid is a talented drummer who connects with music on a deep level, regardless of genre. Her two favourite styles are heavy metal and jazz. She would be happy to simply play drums all day, but when she tries out for The Fourth Down (TFD), a band composed of guys from the cool crowd at her school, she realizes that image matters too, at least to their group. She turns to her fashion conscious cousin for help. As she struggles to reconcile her new 'sexy' look with her own more casual style, she discovers that guys are only too ready to interpret her dress as an invitation to invade her personal space and pepper her with suggestive innuendo.
Sid proceeds with her plan to win over the band, defending herself when necessary with an arsenal of retorts that some readers might recognize as a textbook. But the unfair harassment of the guys, who include another drummer trying out for the spot, drives the narrative in another direction and leads to a episode where Sid is subjected to a sexual assault outside her school. The band gangs up and their leader, Rocklin, forces a violent kiss on her. Her reputation is further undermined when they put a video of the event online. Even her best friend Taylor, a boy wrestling with his own issue of sexual identity, and math-nerd crush Brad, whom Sid has fallen hard for, develop a distorted view of Sid and begin to doubt her. Sid wants to handle the incident herself, but the trajectory of consequences takes it out of her control and out of the hands of the school counselor who is trying to help her. When a special school assembly and police investigation don't deliver public justice, Sid must choose between pursuing a nasty civil suit and finding peace with an indirect justice that the perpetrators meet in the community. After she realizes that she really doesn't want to join TFD after all, Sid decides to start her own all-girl band so she can play on her terms. The romance with awkward but adorable Brad also wends its way to a highly satisfying conclusion.
There is no question that Bass is a skillful writer. Intelligent narration and inventive language lets us see the characters clearly as distinct personalities and Bass can quickly deliver an image or idea with a memorable turn of phrase. For instance, when Sid visits a hospital, she sees rooms "filled with people waiting for life to resume and fearing it might not". At the same time, Bass has a strong grasp of a snappy idiom for dialogue that feels authentically youthful. In fact the zing in the language does double duty, as it also fuels the momentum of the well-paced plot, making for a high re-read value. Likewise, musical terminology and description is accurate to a fault–terms like paradiddle and flam will be novel even to many musicians–and band references like Rush are legit.
The novel doesn't pull any punches in presenting the ruthless world of high school: gender roles and harassment are topical and difficult issues. However, the resolution of the assault presents a dilemma. If Sid doesn't take up a civil suit, does that make what happened OK? Sid's decision to pick her battles and move on parallels the story arc of her moderation of style in both drumming and fashion. While some may disagree with the author's choice of this outcome, Bass treads carefully. The message she delivers is that the real world is not perfect. Finally, library folks will appreciate the way Bass, herself a former library manager, has subtly characterized the school library as a safe refuge and source of helpful information. A little self-advertising never hurt anyone.
Highly Recommended: 4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: John Huck
Editor’s note: Drummer Girl was the recipient of the YA bronze medal in the 2011 Foreword Book of the Year Awards.John Huck is a metadata and cataloguing librarian at the University of Alberta. He holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and maintains a special interest in the spoken word. He is also a classical musician and has sung semi-professionally for many years.