Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 18, 2019

Stone Girl, by Eleni Hale

In June this year I attended an author event at the Sandringham branch of Bayside Library with my good friend and author Mairi Neil, and was introduced to a local writer I hadn’t come across, Eleni Hale.  Mairi blogged the event so I won’t reproduce what’s already been said except to say that the event was about ‘turning your life into fiction’—and Eleni had mined her own life in state care to write what has now become an award-winning debut novel.  Her story, as she told it on the night, was so impressive and her passion for lifting the profile of kids in out-of-home care was so compelling, that copies of Stone Girl sold out.  So I reserved it at my library online as soon as I got home.

In July it was announced that Eleni had won the 2019 Readings Young Adult Prize for Stone GirlThe book is obviously very popular because it has taken ten weeks for my reserve to come through, and my library has multiple copies of it.  It has the PRC (Premiers’ Reading Challenge) sticker on it too, selected for the Years 9 & 10 list,  but it is, IMO, very much a book for senior students or for those for whom it is deemed suitable by the judgement of a responsible adult.   The book doesn’t come with trigger warnings, but I assume that secondary school librarians have some process for shielding younger students from books with very detailed drug references and abuse of all kinds.  I’m aware, of course, of the irony that a book that I wouldn’t have wanted my 15 year-old to read until he was older, is about the terrible things that happened to a girl aged just 12.

By coincidence, Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has just reviewed a memoir by an author who was also in state care.  Rating the book highly, but concluding that it’s not for the faint-hearted, she begins her review like this:

The current thinking in social work circles is that there are better long-term outcomes for children left with their family in an unstable home, than those removed and placed in foster care. This was in the back of my mind as I read comedian Corey White’s recently published memoir, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory.

The details White shares of his childhood made me sick with fear from the first page.

That’s how I felt about Stone Girl.  It is a superb evocation of all that’s wrong with the way we provide for vulnerable children in State Care, but it is utterly heartbreaking, and more so because I know it is authentic.  Hale said that night at the library that all the experiences were real, though she had also drawn on what happened to other kids she knew so they didn’t all happen to her.  Well, I don’t want to criticise welfare workers because they have an unenviable task and all the ones I’ve ever met have been doing their very best to manage out-of-home care with inadequate resources.  (And I’ve met plenty, from my very first school and thereafter.) But I don’t think I could have continued reading had I not had the image before me of its adult author who had somehow survived and thrived despite personal experiences and witnessing trauma that would have broken most other people.  I am glad Stone Girl wasn’t available to read in the days when I was required by law to report abuse and neglect under Victoria’s Mandatory Reporting laws, because I know I would have broken them rather than put any child at risk of what happens to the child in this book.

Sophie is 12 when her feckless mother dies of drug abuse and she is taken into state care because there is no family to turn to.  Her biological father has never been much more than that: he’s in Greece in a new relationship.  While Sophie has idealised memories of happy times as a small child on the beach before her mother took off for a ‘better life’ in Australia, her hopes for a reunion go nowhere.  He does not respond to urgent phone calls, and when weeks later she finally makes contact with him his evasive response only makes the social workers think she’s better off without him.

At first Sophie feels comforted by the kindly nature of her first social worker, but her fantasies about finding a new home with her are prohibited by the rules, if not by the worker’s own need to manage her own sometimes resentful family.  Before long, Sophie is on a merry-go-round of short-term emergency placements while they seek a permanent home, and it’s a miracle when even a medium-term place comes up.  The hope dissipates when Sophie realises she is unwanted, and always will be.  She isn’t even wanted in her old school where her best friend’s mother had sabotaged the friendship forever.  Appallingly, she thinks she deserves what happens to her.

The worst aspect of all this, is that all these emergency, temporary, short/medium and “long-term” placements involve being with other kids badly damaged by the system, and often much older than she is.  She is exposed to violence and thuggery, rule- and law-breaking, theft of her few mementoes and outright cruelty, and before long she has become the ‘bad influence on others’ that they were on her.  When she runs away, as she often does, she is exposed to shocking danger and is ‘lucky’ to escape it.  Nobody can make her go to school, cynicism has made her implacably resistant to any kind of counselling, and her prospects seem utterly hopeless.

What shines through, however, is her spirit and her occasional flashes of kindness and compassion.  It’s impossible not to like her, even when she is doing things that deserve firm disapproval.

Stone Girl is not a book you can put down because you have to know that Sophie is going to survive, somehow, before you can close the cover.  For me, that was at four-o’clock this morning.

Author: Eleni Hale
Title: Stone Girl
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2018, 350 pages
ISBN: 9780143785613
Source: Bayside Library, Hampton Branch

Available from Fishpond: Stone Girl, and of course Readings has it too. 

 


Responses

  1. Such a problem. You see programs about the difficulties people who want to offer long-term care have in actually being able to do that. I have trouble understanding that. I feel really sorry for the social/welfare workers who are on the front-line of all this. They cop all the flack and get so little support and are paid a pittance for their pains.

    And OF COURSE, I feel sorry for the children caught up in this.

    Like

    • I agree: I don’t think many of us realise just how draining it is to work in that system: I saw kids being really abusive to the social workers who visited them at our school, and their patience was an example to us all. (I have to admit that I didn’t always feel as compassionate as I ought to have, especially when the kid I’m thinking of was so disruptive to his class day in and day out, and although we understood the reasons for it, he was given rewards the other kids never got, for the most trivial improvements.)
      Some parents just ought not ever to have children…

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      • I can understand not feeling as compassionate as you ought to have – there’s the brain and what it intellectually knows, and the emotions that can’t help being triggered by difficult behaviour. Not easy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ‘The kids who need the most love ask for it in the most unloving ways’

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        • Yup. And so of course do their parents, but it’s hard to be a bleeding heart for them when you see what they are doing to their own kids.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Poor children. How compromised their opportunities for a decent life are in the system of state care. I was employed for a short time and was horrified at not only the trauma of the lives of the children but the attitude of those who were supposedly there to help them. It was the hardest six months of any job I had and could not say anything positive about it.We have a very long way to go in this country when it comes to our care of vulnerable children.

    Like

    • I can’t say I ever saw poor attitudes from social workers or carers, though I can well understand how patience wears thin.
      What drove us crazy with a kid whose parent was in prison, was the promises that parent made to keep in touch with phone calls, and never did. Time and again that kid had hopes raised, and dashed, and no wonder the reaction was uncontrollable fury.

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  3. I have to get my hands on Stone Girl now! Sophie’s story sounds almost identical to Corey White’s with regards to feelings of worthlessness and not being wanted.

    You are absolutely right regarding the work of social workers – they are working at capacity but ultimately, resources are limited (and stretched). And there are no easy answers. If the system moves toward supporting children to stay with their families, then the appropriate supports need to be put in place (things such as breakfast and lunch supplied at school, and ‘respite’ camps).

    Like

    • I think it takes much more than meals and respite. We had one family where the mother had no parenting skills at all (long story that you can probably guess at) and DoCS provided a live-in worker to model appropriate behaviours when after some years of the kids being in foster care, she went to court (legal aid) and got custody again. Within a year she was back earning a living in the usual way, and with the usual chemical additives, and she’d kicked out the worker, and my 6 year-old was getting his little sister’s breakfast if there was any, before he came to school in the very late morning.
      I’ll never forget that kid, and I bet his social worker hasn’t either.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes agree that it takes much more than meals! But I do think these are just some of the very basic things that HAVE to happen if the system is keeping kids in their homes. I also go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – it’s accurate!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. That phrase “Sophie realises she is unwanted, and always will be.” brought tears to my eyes. How utterly awful to feel that at such a young age. Clearly she managed to get out of that cycle of abuse/neglect/violence but I can’t imagine how she did it.

    Like

    • Yes…
      As a side issue, it makes you realise how vulnerable migration can make children. The child in this story had no extended family – grandparents, aunts or uncles, or cousins. They were all back in Greece and were presumably estranged from her mother so they were not in touch, and she, presumably, was also not part of the Greek community in her new home. The book doesn’t go into this but I can imagine that community disapproval of her behaviour would make this a credible scenario.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s such an insoluble problem, so much of our prison population comes from broken families, yet we do so little except move kids about. Fostering combined with ongoing contact seems the best we can expect, yet there are far more needy children than there are places in foster care.
    Mum gave it a try once, after I’d left home, a 15 yo girl who was so happy to be taken in, but it didn’t last.

    Like

    • My first experience with a student in out-of-home care was a girl being fostered by really nice people with family of their own. But she behaved really badly in very confronting ways, and when I talked with the social worker about why she would do such things (she was only 8 or 9) the SW told me that it’s the child’s test for the foster parent. The foster parent tells the kid it’s part of the family, and they can stay for as long as they want to, but the kid sees that the other children in the family have unconditional love. But the kid knows that her place in the family is conditional. She knows she has to be really good, and be lovable all the time, which is of course impossible.
      So the kid sets a test: will you still let me stay if I do something awful? No, almost certainly not. So I may as well do something awful now, and get it over with before I start feeling as if I belong here. And even if the foster parent ‘passes’ the test, a kid like that will continue to do ever more confronting things because they know that no one really loves them enough to tolerate really bad behaviour, not the way real parents love their children no matter what they do.

      Like

  6. […] book by a Woman of Colour: #Fail I’ve read one YA novel this year Stone Girl by Eleni Hale, what a shame they didn’t have a category for a book about triumphing over a […]

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