Have you ever truly been poor? Needy? And I don’t mean that one time you couldn’t afford something or maybe you had to sleep on an air mattress for awhile until you bought a bed for your new apartment. I mean like hanging on by your fingernails, any slip up could destroy you, anyone has the power to fuck up your life POOR.
When you talk about being poor, often it becomes a contest to decide who had it the worst. Every time I try to share my childhood and twenties with people as a way of explaining who I am or sharing my past, suddenly everyone around me feels like their poor has been called into question, and the only way to relate to me must be to out-do the stories I am presenting. Dealing with the poor is not something we as a society are super great at or fluent in.
But this isn’t a blog about how people who live in poverty are mistreated and mishandled, although that is a blog post I would love to pen another time. Reading Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why made my heart beat a little faster and my breath catch so often that it was like I was living my high school years again. No please understand that I wasn’t a young woman joining an arson club, but Lucia’s situation with her elderly aunt just had me from the go. The idea that you are constantly trying to hide your poor from others, that you have to either be the best or shut up and do what you are told. That “opportunities” are few and far between.
It’s so difficult for me to explain. It’s just a feeling. Will I make rent? Can I afford to eat? Will I have to steal? Do I pick up the phone and deal with a bill collector or let it go to voicemail? It’s like crouching at the start line of a race, feeling the anticipation that comes with waiting for the sound of the starting pistol, but the pistol never fires. You are constantly on edge, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, just surviving to the next paycheck, to the next bill, to the next meal.
This book just follows one girl through a life filled with terrible circumstances. The way Lucia handles things isn’t the best, it also isn’t the worst. We see hints of talents and intelligence that are generally missed by her high school. She seeks out acceptance in good places and bad. Slowly we witness the walls of her life closing in – and I have to be honest and say that I knew what would happen. My situation is the exception, and I still have not entirely escaped the long, sharp claws of poverty.
Jesse Ball presents us with a social weathervane in this novel. Feeling judgmental? Sympathetic? Empathetic? Pity? What would you do? When would you have intervened? Is there anything to be done? Read this book and ask yourself, when should we start a fire over this kind of situation, and why?