Amy Reed’s “The Nowhere Girls” (Simon & Schuster 2017) is among the more than 22 books so far this school year that a trio of individuals have sought to ban from high school library shelves. The book-banners are basing their objection to “The Nowhere Girls,” as they are to all the books they’ve challenged, on allegations of inappropriateness plagiarized from a national website that published this report on Reed’s.
A joint committee of Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas high school faculty members voted to keep “The Nowhere Girls” on library shelves. The decision was appealed to a district review committee, which meets Monday, March 13 at 6 p.m. at the Government Services Building’s Room 3A in Bunnell. (It is different from the school-based committee that met earlier this week to review Melinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club. The committee voted to keep that book.)
The district appeals committee will make a recommendation to Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt on whether to retain or ban the book. If Mittlestadt decides to ban the book, the decision is final. If she decides to retain it, the decision may be appealed to the school board. The district has not resolved the legal discrepancy that gives book-banners the right of appeal, but not book advocates. The following review by FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam is presented as a guide, and is part of a series reviewing books on the banners’ index.
In 1993, long before any media would dare refer to it as high school rape culture, a group of 20 to 30 boys from Lakewood High School in California made front page news across the country. They called themselves the Spur Posse. They had a sex-for-points competition. Whoever had sex with the most girls, gang rapes included, won. But it had to be penetration, and it had to be a different girl for each point. “It doesn’t count if you have, like, sex with a girl, like 150 times, 200–that’s only one point,” one of them said on a TV talk show. One of their victims was 10. The winner, over four years, tallied 67 points.
Nine of the posse’s members were arrested. The charges included 10 counts of rape by intimidation, four counts of unlawful sex, and forcible rape. A 16 year old was charged with lewd conduct with the 10-year-old victim. That charge led to a nine-month juvenile detention term. All the other charges were dropped. “Although there is evidence of unlawful sexual intercourse, it is the policy of this office not to file criminal charges where there is consensual sex between teenagers,” the Los Angeles County’s District Attorney’s Office declared. “The arrogance and contempt for young women which have been displayed, while appalling, cannot form the basis for criminal charges.”
The two statements were contradictory. But they revealed the authorities’ prevailing contempt for girls. Despite their corroborated accounts, they were not believed. After four nights in jail eight of the nine returned to heroes’ cheers at school. ″Nothing my boy did was anything any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do,″ one of the boys’ father told the Long Beach Press-Telegram. His wife called the girls “trash.” The boys went on the television talk-show circuit for $1,000 an appearance.
Even The New York Times, in its front-page story on the gang, used exonerating language it would never use today, headlining its story: “Where ‘Boys Will be Boys’ And Adults Are Befuddled.” The article was worse: “The tale of the Spur Posse in some ways sounds like an old story about bad boys and fast girls, about athletes who can do no wrong and the people who fawn over them. But it comes as codes of sexual conduct are colliding with boys-will-be-boys mores and as unemployment and broken marriages are troubling the still waters of this piece of suburbia southeast of Los Angeles.”
It was no “tale.” It was an old story, but not about “bad boys,” certainly not about “fast girls,” words that implied the girls asked for it. It had nothing to do with codes. It was about violence, misogyny, and power. It was about rape.
Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls is that story, but from the girls’ perspective. It is a #MeToo manifesto in the form of a novel for young adults. It’s not a subtle work. There’s nothing subtle about high school rape culture. Reed’s characters are traced in thick woke or white marker. There is zero doubt who the villains are and who the good ones are, to the point of caricature. The boys are scum and all play on the school’s football team. The principal, a woman, is a self-preserving sadist. The police chief is a stereotypical goon who plays poker with one of the rapists’ father.
The football coach who teaches English lit is embalmer to dead white males: “I believe in the canon. I believe in reading great works of literature that have endured through the ages because they explore universal themes. I’m not going to waste our time with work that is popular because of passing fads and political correctness,” he tells his students on the first day. “We will start with selections by Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Then we’ll read Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.”
For all that, Reed’s storytelling skills grab you and don’t let go until the 403rd page as she takes you with her three heroes on a mission to expose and defeat the mentality that declares, in the words of its chief spokesman and lead rapist, that “girls are good for fucking and making sandwiches. That’s it.” Well before the novel’s end, you’re looking to sign up–or should sign up–with the Nowhere Girls’ mission, wherever you fall on the gender spectrum.
The novel takes place in Prescott, Oregon, a fictional town of 17,549 people “Halfway between a farm town and a suburb,” home of the Spartans, the high school football team and the only game in town (“Go Spartans!”), and “Home of so many almost-women, waiting for their skin to fit.” (There is an actual Prescott further north, a village of 90 people. No relation.)
The three girls at the center of the novel are “not popular, but they’re also not the bottom rung,” Reed writes. They’re “the kind of girls no one notices.”
Rosina Suarez is the only child of a single mother. Her father died months after she was born. Her mother runs a Mexican restaurant and overburdens Rosina with family and work duties, including caring for her grandmother who is wasting away from dementia. Rosina is all cynical and tough on the outside but a whirl of cravings on the inside. She wants to be a rock star, she likes girls, she wants her mother’s love but the two don’t get along.
Erin DeLillo is the super-smart girl with asperger’s. She’s the only child of an almost broken marriage. Her father is busy avoiding the family. Her mother is so busy running a website and social media platforms about asperger’s that she has no time for her daughter. Erin turns to “Star Trek: The Next generation,” and Data, the “android who wants to be human,” as her moral compass and life’s regulator. Erin also has a secret. She’s been raped. Her parents–and her friends–have no idea.
Grace is the obvious moral center of the book. She’s a transplant, the daughter of a woman pastor fired from her church in Kentucky after she turns all woke on the congregation. She’s fat. She’s the token believer in god, a recurring injection of faith that feels forced and pandering to the many boxes Reed wants to check. The family has just moved to Prescott, into the house where a girl has left tiny messages engraved in the paint with her fingernails, in Grace’s bedroom: “Help me.”
A story called “Shame” by Mieko Kawakami, published in Granta in November 2020, included the following line: “Men would nonchalantly joke about how their hobby was groping women, and believed without a doubt that rape was just a variety of sex. That was the world in which Narumi and her classmates lived.” That’s the world in which Rosina, Erin and Grace live at Prescott High.
The Harvey Weinstein language reducing girls to sex and sandwiches is taken from an anonymous blog called “The Real Men of Prescott” written by a recent graduate and former football star at the school, Spencer Klimpt, who now works at a convenience store and looks as dirty as he writes, his hands “scabbed at the knuckles, his chewed-up nails black with grime.” This teen-age Bruce Dern’s best days are over. His gang-raping days aren’t. He enumerates his conquests on the blog, and continues his assaults with fellow-rapists and still-enrolled football stars Eric Jordan and Ennis Calhoun as they prey on unknowing girls who misread their intentions.
The girl screaming for help with her silent messages in Grace’s room is Lucy Moynihan, the fourth hero in the book. She never appears except in other girls’ recollections. She was raped, nobody believed her, she and her family were run out of town. The engravings “the texture of screaming” haunt Grace. When she hears about the boys’ points-for-sex competition, Grace wants to stop it, and she wants justice for Lucy.
Grace, Erin and Rosina create a support group called “The Nowhere Girls.” It grows into a cross-section of high school girls normally barred from crossing over every high school’s demarcations of class and clique. It comes up with a manifesto that, as one of the members of Flagler County’s book-challenge committee astutely observed, is a recreation of Aristophane’s Lysistrata, where the women elect to withhold sex from men to end the Peloponnesian war. The Nowhere Girls do likewise, to end rape culture. (The literary sampling is a Reed habit: in Tell Me My Name, her 2021 book, she retold The Great Gatsby from a different gender’s perspective.)
Reeds plays the set up for all it’s worth, though again making her points with the bluntness of Soviet art, leaving nothing to the imagination, at least when she conveys the language of boys. There are exceptions, as in some of the many passages where the characters are not named but the scenes reflect the everyday and conversations of teens: “But there are good guys too. And most guys are probably somewhere in the middle. What about them?” she has one of her unnamed boy characters tell his withholding girlfriend. But Reed can’t resist a didactic contempt for showing the dark side of boys being boys:
“Fucking chicks, man,” says the asshole named Blake at the table next to Amber’s. It is impossible to ignore him, too. “I bought Lisa a quadruple grande caramel some kind of bullshit that cost like six dollars, and she wouldn’t even give me a fucking hand job.” “Lisa?” says another guy. “She’s in on that Nowhere Girls bullshit now too?” “Yeah, can you believe it? She was all, ‘I don’t have to hook up with you if I don’t feel like it,’ so I was like, ‘Then why are you wearing that skirt that’s so short I can practically see your ass?’ and she was all, ‘I can wear whatever I want,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but if you wear something like that, you can’t expect me to behave myself,’ which is like totally reasonable, right?” “Totally.” “But then she started bitching about how blaming women for sexual assault because of what they’re wearing is, like, bad or something, and I was like, ‘Who said anything about sexual assault? I just wanted a hand job,’ and then she threw the fucking drink in my face!”
In contrast, Reed pulls off a dazzling set piece, an extended discussion among the Nowhere Girls in one of their meetings that reads like a seminar on the anxieties and joys and dangers and vulnerability of being a girl in a still-overwhelmingly male-dominated world. Reed is at her most nuanced and perceptive as she deconstructs the impossibly treacherous labyrinth of teen sexuality from a dozen points of view.
The two most powerful set pieces are two rape scenes. With minimal explicit but plenty of visceral detail, Reed, who told an interviewer she was “doing work to heal my own trauma” as she wrote the novel, places you in the skin of two victims. One of them is Lucy Moynihan, the other is Erin. Reed’s prose paces you through every step that leads to the assault with the slow-motion assurance of a boa constrictor. The scenes are one-act tragedies. You know what’s coming. The girl doesn’t. You want to scream. Reed makes you feel her helplessness, the overpowering, matter-of-facts violence of the act, and the boys’ presumption that, after all, they’re not doing “anything any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do.” You smell the victim’s vomit. You understand that The Nowhere Girls is fiction only in the most technical sense, and that we have a serious, enduring problem in this country.
The novel works on many levels, with subplots of romance, family strains, personal discovery, plenty of humor (“He has a special gift for putting a positive spin on things that suck,” Reed writes of Grace’s father. “He’s in marketing, after all.”) It’s schematic and at times ridiculously stereotypical, but Reed’s ear for teens’ emotional and speech patterns is so perfectly pitched as to make this an essential read for parents who may feel like aliens in their teens’ lives. They are aliens, but it’s not a mystery why. Parents’ cluelessness can be boundless. It’s not a parental bill of rights we need, Reed seems to say, but a children’s bill of rights.
The Spur Posse got away with its rapes. The Nowhere Girls ends with the arrest of Preston High’s repulsive trio. But we don’t know if the charges will stick. That doesn’t appear to be Reed’s concern. The solidarity of girls is enough. She gives Lucy Moynihan, invisible and silent until then, the final lines: “The world is already a different place than it was last spring, when there was no way the Nowhere Girls could have existed. But now here they are, in the exact same impossible place she left, doing impossible things.” She remembers the words she’d scratched in her old bedroom and “wonders if anyone ever found them.”
Reed’s Nowhere Girls is the answer, as is the realization, by the time you close the book, that a phrase like boys will be boys is a slur and a justification of misogynistic hate. It is time to condemn and retire it.
The following questions in bold are reproduced here exactly as they appear on the Flagler County school district’s district appeals questionnaire for media advisory committees taking up appeals of book challenges–or attempts to ban books–at the district level. Individual committee members are required to fill in their answers before the committee meeting, where the panel members then discuss the book and reach a decision on each appeal. The answers below are provided as an amendment to the preceding review, in the more focused context of the district’s questions, and are of course only the reviewer’s own–in this case, FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam. Committee members may reach vastly different conclusions.
Title: The Nowhere Girls.
Author or editor: Amy Reed.
Publisher: Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster
Basis of objection: “Materials contain pornography, Materials are not appropriate for the age of student. This book contains explicit aberrant sexual activities including rape of a minor; prostitution; and explicit violence.”
1. What do you feel is the purpose, theme or message of the material?
The novel explores and decries rape culture in high school–the presumption that “boys will be boys,” a euphemism for the justification of violence behind the exculpatory phrase.
2. Is the purpose accomplished? Yes or no answer only.
3. This work is most suitable for which grades?
4. Are concepts presented in a manner appropriate to the ability and maturity of your suggested audience? Yes or no answer only.
5. Does the material stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and/or ethical values?
The Nowhere Girls is fiction, but it is grounded in documented instances of high school sex competitions. The book is more ethical than it is aesthetic. The novel is gripping, but the writing, while never poor or clumsy, is basic and not, in and of itself, inspiring. It is often cliche, pedestrian. Reed’s storytelling skills compensate.
6. Does the material enable students to make intelligent judgments in their daily lives?
Yes. The book’s rape scenes are a how-to not fall into the manipulative traps of predators, though the book also asserts that girls should not live in a world where they have to worry about being anyone’s prey.
7. Does the material offer an opportunity to understand more of the human condition?
Yes. It the book provides sharp insights into the psychology and anxieties of teens, the blind spots of adults, the complicity of a culture that does not take girls’ safety as its starting point as much as it perpetuates damaging assumptions about masculinity through such phrases as boys will be boys.
8. Does the material offer an opportunity to better understand an appreciate the aspirations, achievements and history of diverse groups of people?
Yes. Reed’s characters are purposefully, schematically diverse: the girl with asperger. The Mexican-immigrant lesbian girl. The fat straight Southern girl who believes in god. The sensitive black boy whose brother transitioned. The Marxist preacher mother. The politically correct box-checking gets to be a little ridiculous, especially when contrasted with the confederacy of white villains on every other page, so that as the book attempts to subvert old stereotypes, it only creates new ones. That’s why aesthetically and as a work of literature, The Nowhere Girls fails. But its author’s intention appears not to be literary so much as to preach a new gospel of girl power through lenses as diverse as possible. In that regard, it succeeds.
1. Is the content timely and/or relevant? Yes or no. Does this work have literary merit? Yes, no, not applicable. The explain.
Yes and yes. Rape culture is not an invention, and to think that even when it’s uncovered, as it was in Lakewood, Calif., in 1993, it was excused and unpunished, makes a book like Reed’s timely as a means for girls (and boys) to be on their guard. It even gives them the tools to counter and elevate the culture to something more respectful, without denying the rights and norms of teen sexuality.
2. If presented as factual, is the content accurate? Is the factual information in the book current and accurate as far as you are aware? Yes or no, then explain.
The Nowhere Girls makes no pretense to factual accuracy, but is grounded in factual realities of rape culture.
1. Does the material take in consideration the students’ varied interests, abilities and/or maturity levels?
Yes. The book’s language is, if anything, not challenging. But its ideas are, and can easily engage and interest students in middle and high school, where the culture it depicts is probably no stranger to many.
2. Does the material help to provide representation for various religious, ethnic, and/or cultural groups and the contribution of these groups to American heritage?
Yes. See the answer to question 8 above. Rosina as the second-generation Mexican immigrant is a window into that world, without which the United States could not function. Reed lays on the religious preachiness a bit thickly, especially when she introduces god and faith as having agency in human being’s lives: the message is more didactic than believable. But fiction has its privileges.
3. Does this material provide representation to students based on race, color, religion, sex, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, or genetic information?
Yes to many of these categories, including a central character with asperger’s syndrome.
4. Could this work be considered offensive in any way? Note yes or no next to the following categories:
Religion or portrayal of religious practices/ideologies: Yes.
Sexual behavior: Yes.
Manner characters are presented: No.
Prurient behavior: A rapist’s behavior is prurient, and this novel is at least in part about the consequences of rape, but it is not presented pruriently.
Portrayal of any societal groups: No.
Aberrant behavior: Yes.
Political positions: No.
5. Are questionable or offensive elements of this work an important part of the overall development of the story or text?
Yes. Rape culture is a problem. It is not exposed or discussed openly enough. The book attempts to bring that to light.
6. Do you feel the material has a purpose for a school library collection? Yes or no.
7. Comments specific to the objection:
The objection was plagiarized from a national website by one or more of just three individuals in Flagler County who have not read the book, don;t know what they’re talking about and couldn’t discuss it on its merit if they themselves were challenged the way this book is being challenged before committees.
8. Additional comments:
Those who object to The Nowhere Girls could learn a lot from reading it. Of course that would require an effort they’re not prepared to furnish, preferring instead to victimizing girls by victimizing the book that seeks to give girls a lifeline.
Recommendation (retain, remove, other), with an explanation of your overall reasoning for the recommendation:
Retain in high school and middle school. Despite its literary failings, the book is informative, enriching and importantly eye-opening, both for teens and for adults who seek to understand them.