Anita Daher’s new novel starts off slow and choppy but by the end has you invested and enthralled. Eugenia Grimm’s father died by suicide and her mother left her soon after. One older brother is a criminal, and the other one has taken Eugenia in, though she thinks he’s bitter about it. Misunderstood and hurting, she’s hanging out with a tough crowd, and it’s no surprise when she winds up in court for a violent offence.
At the beginning of the book – set in the fictional Fort St. Luke (a small western Canadian town) – the characters are stiffly written and prone to cheesy dialogue, both spoken and internal. And Eugenia is just not that interesting. But that day in court changes everything. Soon she’s whisked off to a ranch program for delinquent teens, and a whole new set of characters gets the story rolling.
The horse ranch, Reason’s Wait, is run by a former paramedic. “Noah Damby was a smartass,” says Eugenia on their trip from town to the ranch. “I liked him a little better for it.” Noah’s assembled an appealing gang of social workers and people who used to work in prisons to do double duty as therapists/security and ranch hands/cooks. The program “participants” work as horse wranglers and manual labourers. Here, the feel of the novel moves from stilted to natural and the characters – therapists and troubled youth alike – have an inviting combination of snarkiness and depth.
Despite being gently hazed at the ranch by her peers and a crotchety counsellor, Eugenia feels an instant connection to the place, people, horses, and even the backbreaking physical labour. Her fellow delinquents aren’t bad kids, and they quickly open up, befriend, and support her. And if every once in a while one of them attacks her, verbally or physically, they’re quick to apologize and admit that they’ve still got some work to do on themselves.
As the title suggests, Eugenia thinks of herself as a lost cause. Even as she’s enjoying the program and seeing a reason to follow the rules, she’s convinced good things don’t last in her life. While she’s not surprised when it looks like she’s going to be kicked off the ranch – thanks to a combination of her own screw-ups and being set up by someone else – she is nevertheless devastated.
Her fate is in the hands of Noah: will he forgive her alleged transgression and let her stay, which may be her best chance at rehabilitation, or will he play hardball? Even though we know very little of his story or motivations, Noah’s the kind of solid presence a struggling youth needs and a character that, in this case, elevates the book.