Overview: Girls on Fire
In November 1991, good-but-boring Hannah Dexter undergoes a transformation. After the suicide of football star Craig Ellison, Hannah locks eyes with new girl Lacey Champlain during the school mandated morning silent prayer. Hannah notices mysterious and rebellious Lacey staring at her and when their eyes meet, Lacey flips off the heavens. Hannah mimicks Lacey’s action, already compelled to please this girl.
The two become fast friends after Lacey helps Hannah get revenge on high school goddess and Craig’s girlfriend, Nikki, who humiliated Hannah during gym class. Lacey reshapes Hannah in her image, renaming her “Dex”, swathing Hannah in grunge clothes, and introducing Hannah to drugs, booze, and boys. Hannah’s former-musician dad takes to Cobain-obsessed Lacey easily, but Hannah’s mother senses Lacey’s more sinister, dark influence.
As the girls’ friendship intensifies, Hannah’s behavior spirals out of control. Despite the warnings of her parents and peers, Hannah is steadfastly loyal to Lacey. One night changes everything, and the obsessive friendship between the girls put them on a path they’re powerless to resist.
Female friendships during adolescence are a strange thing. We can be brutally mean to each other, but don’t want anyone else mistreating our friends. When our best friends ditch us for boys thanks to the hormone surge of puberty, we feel abandoned. Friendships can often become toxic during this tender and turbulent time in our lives. Robin Wasserman captures an extreme version of this with Lacey and Hannah.
Hannah is so easily manipulated by Lacey because she’s thrilled to finally have someone value her. As for Lacey’s intentions, we can question whether or not they were pure. Did she just want a friend who wasn’t a cookie cutter suburban clone to distract her from her abusive home life? Or did she want to see how far she could corrupt the class nobody? I could never get a grip on Lacey’s intentions, even up to the final word.
Wasserman uses the Satanic cult panic of the 80s/90s as both a front for Lacey to hide behind and to show the panic that ensues when young women rebel. Craig’s death is attached to Satanism when there’s no evidence of him being involved in cults. In the months following his suicide, as Lacey and Hannah’s friendship evolves, the town becomes increasingly frenzied with accusations of Satanism. As Hannah asserts herself as something other than a doormat, only Hannah’s father and Lacey encourage her to pursue her new identity.
As with the actual Satanic panic, Lacey’s less a Satanist and more a very troubled teen who likes making people feel uncomfortable. The book manages to be very dark even without the Satanism aspect. Lacey and Hannah have obvious demons as the outcasts at school, but the cool kids are just as messed up. It may make you feel like taking a long, hot, exfoliating shower after you read it.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Nirvana albums