No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are difficult topics and there are ones where socially we like to pretend they don't exist. Susin Nielsen has brought a hard topic, children who are homeless, to the forefront. Set in Vancouver, the homeless capital of Canada due to it's temperate weather, No Fixed Address is a moving and tear jerking story. I'm not a crier, and I tend to dislike books that are written to intentionally make readers cry (John Green and I are not friends). The difference here is that I wasn't crying by the end because of the story per say. I had tears thinking about any child being homeless at any given moment. Especially in my own home country of Canada.
Canada is not perfect
I try to read at least 15% Canadian authors in any given year. And I was pleased to see that Nielsen is Canadian. However, Nielsen has reminded me in No Fixed Address that Canada has many flaws that need to be worked on. Just being a first world, relatively nice and supportive member of the world does not make us better or without our struggles. We still have homelessness here; and it's no more acute than in Vancouver (where both my siblings happen to live). Between it's warm weather, it's close proximity to the USA border, and housing prices that are out of reach for households that make $100,000 a year; Vancouver is a very difficult place to have a warm, safe place to sleep in. It's the perfect setting for this story and Nielsen uses areas of Vancouver that are familiar and accurately depicts the city and it's residents. In 2017 it was reported that 35% of the homeless population in Vancouver never used drugs or abused alcohol. A stark difference from the stereotypes often given to this population.
Still Playful at Times
There are super cute illustrations at the front of the chapters that give a sense that while this is a heavy topic that these are still kids who just want to play outdoors and have fun. All of our child characters are well developed and significantly different. I liked how Nielsen showed that doctors might live in a condo in Vancouver (because housing prices are crazy!) and that other families might be in a small townhouse and all live in different areas of Vancouver. Because the school that our lead boy ends up at is 'coveted' there is a wonderful diversity to it. Just like most of Canada.
Anxiety, Smells, and Coping
No Fixed Address does a beautiful (yet tragic) job of focusing on the homelessness. There's no 'extra' trauma or issues to be resolved here; because there doesn't need to be. This is something that bugs me in a lot of teen books lately; they always have a focus issue and then some trauma to go with it. Nielsen does a great job of ensuring the homelessness is the focus and is never lost in any of the other teenage issues that come up. She ensures you know that smelling badly because you have no shower (or washroom of any sort!), nowhere to take your friends to after school, and starving many days is more than enough for one kid to deal with. it
Our lead boy shows extreme anxiety alongside some typical coping mechanisms throughout the book. He hiccups when too stressed or anxious, he counts or recites lists when he needs stability in his mind (this is exactly like many children that count steps or stairs; they do this because the counts never change and it makes them feel stable), and he is ashamed to tell anyone. In some ways the shame of being homeless is the hardest for our lead boy to accept. Top that off with a Mother that steals, cheats and lies; all the while somehow pretending her son is not aware? Our lead boy starts to gain some confidence throughout the story and call his Mother out for her bad behaviour. Those were some of the best (and saddest) moments of the story as you saw a 13-year-old tell an adult how childish and awful they were being.
Given the Canadian setting, in a large city, and that our lead boy attends school; I felt the outcome(s) of No Fixed Address fit would what likely happen in real life. Eventually people start to ask questions, including the other children, and then adults start noticing. This is the slow progression that happens in schools and communities when the bubble the parent thinks they have put their child in starts to deflate. Our lead boy also starts to realize that maybe he doesn't have to live this way. This is, of course, a turning point in the story.
I love how Nielsen portrays the system for support as being both good; but with it's flaws. This could not be a truer representation of how it goes. Some kids get into the system and do well; others don't. And some only ever see the edges of it. I won't tell you how it plays out here; except to say that I was content with the ending and that the refugee couple who are 'involved' a few times during our lead boys struggles were my absolute favourite people in the story. Just like in real life, those with the littlest to give are always the most generous.
I hope a copy of this book makes it to every single library (school or public) in Canada. It's truly a great story. Easy to read, fast paced and so genuine. Nielsen has shed light into how trapped children can be by their parents poor decisions and how easy it is to justify those bad decisions for the kids affected. I can't help but feel despair in how to help those who find themselves out on the streets. Especially when I know my brother was paying $1400+ for a one-bedroom, 450 sq. ft. apartment in downtown Vancouver just last year. That is at least one pay cheque (or more) for the average income earner. When more than 50% of your income goes to housing (and nothing else) where do you find the money for clothes, toiletries, food and other necessities? This is certainly not a question I can answer or an issue I can solve. However, I can only hope that others will read No Fixed Address and understand that many of these people are NOT drug users and have just been unlucky or have a mental health issue that brings them down. The one of the most poignant moments in the book is when the lead boy asks his mom where her "pills" are (used for depression as far as we can tell) and she tells him it was prescriptions or food this month. What a horrible decision to have to make.
The light and hope that peeks through in Nielsen's novel is just as important as the tough subject matter. A reminder that people should ask for help. That the despair, shame and fear they feel are all valid; but regardless the best thing to do is to ask for assistance. Especially when the quality of life and even survival of a child is on the line.
Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.
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