National Book Award finalist Martine Leavitt, an author known for her generic and stylistic experimentation, published the free verse
, young adult novel My Book of Life by Angel
in 2012. The novel’s poetic writing style is juxtaposed starkly with its subject matter: the grim realities of life for a teenager coaxed into becoming a prostitute on the streets of Vancouver. Leavitt’s descriptions of her protagonist’s life aren’t graphic, but they hint at a level of daily, mundane brutality that is hard to brush away. Even more arresting is the fact that the novel is based on real stories, as Leavitt explains in an author’s note included at the end of the book.
After sixteen-year-old Angel loses her mother to an undetected heart condition, the depressed teenager starts hanging out at the mall. In order to feel some semblance of home life, she pretends that the food court is her kitchen and that the shoe store is her closet. However, when one day she shoplifts a pair of shoes from this “closet” and is about to be picked up by mall security, Call, a predatory man steps in to rescue her. Offering her a free lunch and sympathy, Call also lets Angel sample some of his special “candy” – the novel’s poetic way of describing crack-cocaine.
Call worms his way into Angel’s life, giving her more mom-forgetting candy and telling her that he loves her. He describes himself as a businessman, dressing in office-appropriate clothes – but underneath that, he is a manipulative sociopath who is always on the lookout for girls who can be lured into his business. For him, they are “renewable resources.”
Angel’s widowed father is at a loss when it comes to his daughter’s new hobbies of shoplifting, doing drugs, and hanging out with a clearly scummy guy with whom she claims to be in love. Desperate for something to change, he put his foot down – but all that does is make Angel move into Call’s seedy apartment where she can keep up her “candy” addiction.
Soon, Call’s sweet words give way to requests for favors. Could Angel hook up with a few of his friends so that he can get more money to get more candy? As soon as Angel complies, she realizes that she has become something she can’t even say – a “word” that her dad would never allow in his house. To make sure that Angel doesn’t even think about trying to escape, Call implies that he could hurt her younger brother, Jeremy, by showing Angel a stuffed blue rhino that belongs to her little brother.
Angel’s life now revolves around a variety of johns, as Call cajoles and then threatens her into becoming a prostitute on the notorious Vancouver streets near Hastings and Main – a spot nicknamed the “kiddie stroll” because of the underage girls forced into sex work there. One of her clients is “John the john,” a divorced professor who makes Angel read Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost
to him while he has sex with her. Passages from this work recur throughout the novel, as Angel is deeply affected by the power of the words.
There is a rumor that one of the men who cruise for girls in the area is worse than most: Mr. P drives a van with tinted windows, and word on the street is that girls who enter it never seem to come back – something that the police don’t care much about. As Leavitt explains in her author’s note, Mr. P refers to the real-life serial killer Robert Pickton, who killed forty-nine women in the Downtown Eastside in the 1980s and 1990s.
Angel befriends Serena, who teaches her to fend for herself with “dates” and encourages her to write about her life when Angel tells her about Milton’s poetry. However, one day, Serena disappears and Angel wonders if Mr. P is responsible. Shaken into taking stock of her life, Angel decides to stop using Call’s candy and to try to return home. Going cold turkey, Angel experiences extreme withdrawal symptoms, but, nevertheless, she honors her missing friend by buying a notebook she titles “My Book of Life by Angel” and writing about herself in it. To demonstrate her newfound hope for her future, Angel gets a tattoo of angel wings across her back.
Sensing that Angel is thinking of breaking free, Call ups his manipulation by bringing home a mute eleven-year-old girl named Melli. Calling her a “baby” from a place called “Group Home,” Call tells Angel to teach her the ropes so that Melli can also start prostituting herself on the street.
A horrified Angel does everything she can to protect Melli from the life, hiding her from potential johns, and then doing twice the work each night so that she can bring home the amount of money that Call is expecting from two girls. While Angel has her “dates,” other street women watch over Melli – in particular, a nameless woman called Widow who fends for both girls, as well as she can, until she is attacked and beaten.
Angel forms a desperate plan to escape from Call. She solicits help from one of her johns – a cop – to return Melli to her original home. However, whether Angel is able to extricate herself from the life is left ambiguous. Though the novel ends with her free of Call, we don’t know whether she will end up kidnapped by Mr. P or whether she will be able to return home to her father.
In the author’s note that follows, Leavitt explains the history of Robert Pickton, who managed to kill as many women as he did because the police refused to believe the testimony of the one woman who managed to escape from him. Because she was a prostitute, her story of being handcuffed and stabbed went ignored – eventually, the remains of all of Pickton’s victims were found on his farm property.