In her debut young-adult novel, Janice Lynn Mather introduces readers to Indira May Ferguson – Indy for short – who’s leaving the Bahamian village of Mariner’s Cay to live with her uncle, aunt, and cousin Smiley in Nassau. Though Indy brings very little with her, what does inadvertently follow is the nickname “Doubles” – coined because she’s the spitting image of her mamma. And she fears that her mamma’s reputation of being fresh, easy, and cheap will follow her, too.
Indy’s optimism about a new start in a new place quickly dissolves when she becomes the victim of repeated sexual assault. The perpetrator is Gary, Smiley’s older brother; the crimes are being carried out in the supposed safety of Indy’s new home. When she realizes she’s pregnant, Indy knows she mustn’t tell her aunt or anyone at school, but the secret threatens to suffocate her.
Smiley figures out Indy is pregnant and becomes an invaluable confidante. As does Churchy, a boy from Mariner’s Cay, who goes out of his way to help Indy reconnect with her beloved grandmother. Indy’s circle of friends continues to grow as the staff of the nearby yoga retreat – Dion, Joe, Susan, and Maya – come to see more in her than she sees in herself.
After being reunited with Grammy and experiencing unconditional love, Indy is transformed into an unstoppable force, putting a plan in place to reveal the truth about Gary’s violations. Indy’s bravery sets her free and she’s finally able to breathe: “When you know a storm’s coming, you can batten down and hide away, or you can try to outrun the rain. Or there’s option three: stand your ground, face the weather, and hope your roots keep you in place.”
Mather’s writing shines as she weaves the heart-rending with the humorous. The balance is aided by her secondary characters – feisty Grammy, chivalrous Churchy, and supportive Dion – each of whom stands on his or her own and brings greater depth to Indy’s story. It’s all the more poignant when juxtaposed with Gary’s terrifying nonchalance regarding his actions. Mather’s dialogue is remarkably well crafted, conveying a refreshing authenticity in tackling such mature subject matter.
Learning to Breathe addresses with tremendous honesty the shame victims of sexual assault carry. Mather shows how those who suffer this reprehensible crime endure an attack that’s not only physical but also mental and emotional and permeates every aspect of one’s life. Readers will come to understand that it is nevertheless possible to refuse to let the past be the sole motivation for what happens in the future.