By Heather A.
4 out of 5 stars ★★★★☆
Michelle and her little siblings Cass and Denny are African-American and living on the poverty line in urban Baltimore, struggling to keep it together with their mom in jail and only Michelle’s part-time job at the Taco Bell to sustain them.
Leah and her stepbrother Tim are white and middle class from suburban Maryland, with few worries beyond winning lacrosse games and getting college applications in on time.
Michelle and Leah only have one thing in common: Buck Devereaux, the biological father who abandoned them when they were little.
After news trickles back to them that Buck is dying, they make the uneasy decision to drive across country to his hospice in California. Leah hopes for closure; Michelle just wants to give him a piece of her mind.
Five people in a failing, old station wagon, living off free samples at food courts across America, and the most pressing question on Michelle’s mind is: Who will break down first–herself or the car? All the signs tell her they won’t make it. But Michelle has heard that her whole life, and it’s never stopped her before….
*I received an Advanced Reader Copy from FirstToRead.com for my honest review.*
Happy pub day to Don’t Fail Me Now!
This book is much darker than the cover may lead you to believe. Mother in jail for drug possession, father out of the picture, depressed sister, family threatened to be torn apart by Child Services, working at Taco Bell…it all adds up to a very strong central character, Michelle. She’s the rock of the family, and more of a mother to her two younger siblings than their actual mother.
Her decision to take a road trip across the country in a broken down station wagon with her estranged half-sister, Leah, and Leah’s step-brother, Tim, and Michelle’s own siblings, is a recipe for disaster–basically a very teenage decision that I support whole-heartily. I felt that I could relate to her decisions and wish I had been more spontaneous when I was a teenager. But it’s not just that it’s spontaneous, it’s also a desperate effort to get her family’s life back on track. Michelle takes on a lot of responsibility when caring for herself and younger siblings, so her decision is based purely on what she needs to do to survive. Her resourcefulness during the road trip is awe-inspiring. Some people have tough lives, and they fall victim to their own perpetual cycle of destruction. Michelle sees her mother, but learns to do the opposite, even if that means making dubious decisions.
My favorite sub-plot was the tentative romance between Tim and Michelle. They know each other a week, but the feelings they share are real. From the few road trip narratives I’ve read, road trips will either bring out the worst or best in people (as seen in each character in the car). Tim is sweet in his persistence of Michelle’s affections–singing to her, being a second in command, testing her patience…his actions in wooing Michelle were cute.
To address the biracial elephant in the room, the Author, who is white, is writing about a biracial family. I think some people would be hesitant to read it because of that reason. (What if she doesn’t portray this family correctly?) (Is there a correct way to portray a broken family in the first place?) But the characters are people. They have petty thoughts (like does this boy like me), big dreams (maybe Michelle will be a lawyer), and every other human emotion. The author addresses the privilege Tim and Leah have being white. The blackness of Michelle, Cass, and Denny, makes them criminals, even though they are just kids. This is the real world. Anyone who spends a second on Twitter will know that much worse can happen. The scene where they stop to use a bathroom at a fast food restaurant and a older white man follows them to the parking lot and accuses them of kidnapping the Tim and Leah–that was a crazy scene, realistic in how people of color are seen in middle America. When we read the perspective of the white children they don’t even realize how far their privilege has gotten them in life and on the road trip. I feel like there could have been more scenes where this was prevalent, but since they were on the road a lot, it wasn’t as easy to show.
Overall, this was a very well-written road trip narrative. The characters were interesting, the plot was engaging, the ending was a disappointment (in terms of the lackluster father meeting), but hopeful for the future. I enjoyed reading about reckless/responsible Michelle, and how she manages to keep everything together. If I had read this book when I was a teenager, I would have been much stronger for it.