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Title: Doll Crimes
Author: Karen Runge
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: 8th November, 2019
Synopsis: ‘It’s not that there aren’t good people in the world. It’s that the bad ones are so much easier to find.’
A teen mother raises her daughter on a looping road trip, living hand-to-mouth in motel rest stops and backwater towns, stepping occasionally into the heat and chaos of the surrounding cities. A life without permanence, filled with terrors and joys, their stability is dependent on the strangers—and strange men—they meet along the way. But what is the difference between the love of a mother, and the love of a friend? And in a world with such blurred lines, where money is tight and there’s little outside influence, when does the need to survive slide into something more sinister?
Runge has created a timely portrayal of relentless misery. It’s a beautiful story about a girl of unknown age traveling with her mother…until it isn’t. Nail biting, you keep holding on, waiting for it and when it happens, you wish you’d never looked.
With the current politics of the MeToo movement and the ugly reality of human *trafficking in mind, Runge has given voice to a young girl, woman, or both. This voice is innocent and wise beyond childhood. Runge drops hints of realistic horror along the way: ominous photographs, bruising on her arms and legs, physical and spiritual pain, and the possible tutelage of various “Uncles” and one beloved “Aunt.” Of course, there is also “Susie” a man who inhabits a large portion of the novel. At first as a friend, and later in more sinister circumstances.
It is difficult to review this haunting novel without giving away the story. I want to tell it, to spread the story and gain an audience. Runge is speaking for a generation of women who remembered being riot girls and “violets” and obviously the girls and women currently facing today’s headlines. We either know the girl in this novel, or we are her in some sense.
In one memorable scene, the narrator tosses her doll, Samelsa, down a well. (Is “Samelsa” a deliberate choice for childish words: “same as I is”?). The narrator is never given a name beyond Baby, Doll, Babe, Kid. One cannot help but compare the doll Samelsa to the child woman “Baby, Doll.”
“I guess she must have done something wrong,” Mom says, “for you to toss her away like that.”
What crimes could a doll commit?”
This scene is set early in the book, easily reflecting the tossing away of human life, particularly vulnerable women and children. The image of a doll lying at the bottom of a well sticks with you. The thrown away doll, or a body broken. The deep well, beyond all help and hope. And a mother implying that one earns being thrown away, that one has performed or permitted some crime.
This same mother acts like a sister, a friend and eventually, a monster. Their bond is strong. The protagonist refers to her mother with love and trust. And somehow, despite the evil that is revealed, it is smaller than the one that ends the novel. Her mother has entrapped her in a lifestyle, but there is a freedom in it. Not of choice necessarily but of a type of love and a vagabond gypsy life. Yes, her mother is a monster, but it is a crime of necessity.
The moral issues that her mother perpetuates belong to the photographs that she sells and the endless hope for a home. She never intends to stop photographing her daughter or to find a real home. In this sense she is truly corrupt: she has harmed a child twofold. What is real? Illusions created for strangers or the dreams of her daughter? The narrator doesn’t know but the reader does.
What the protagonist does know is rage. The more done to her, the more she reacts violently in her mind with her hallucinatory third eye. Rage builds, and it is only a matter of time before it bleeds out. This is all the more true as the novel progresses. At first there is the hesitant childlike belief coloring outside the lines. Then, the prose edges into reality as the narrator perceives more for herself.
I have to admit that the ending stunned me. I wanted something easy and feel good after the horror. Runge doesn’t back down. She goes for the heart.
I give a rating of 5 stars because I can’t get the book out of my head.
*“In 2018, over half (51.6%) of the criminal human trafficking cases active in the US were sex trafficking cases involving only children. It’s estimated that internationally there are between 20 million and 40 million people in modern slavery today. Assessing the full scope of human trafficking is difficult because so cases so often go undetected, something the United Nations refers to as “the hidden figure of crime.” (This quote and more about human trafficking can be found at: http:// www. do something . Org/ us /facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking.)