The Beckoners is a Young Adult novel about girls bullying girls. Its title is the only subtle or evocative thing about it; the book itself is violent, bleak, and disturbing.
Zoe Anderson is once again the new girl in town. Her mother’s erratic employment and personal history has resulted in Zoe’s complete lack of a support system. In fact, Zoe is her mother’s support system. In addition to going to school, Zoe takes care of her little sister Cassy when her mother is too preoccupied with her new lovers or her AA meetings to be responsible for her. At fifteen, this new move to Abbotsford is the ninth place she’s had to try and fit in again.
Shortly after the move, Zoe runs into Beck, the girl who more or less runs things at her new high school. Beck isn’t the most popular girl, and she certainly isn’t the best adjusted or most stable, but she wields a lot of power. She runs what is more or less a small girl gang – five girls who force their way into acceptance by threat of (or actual) violence. These “Beckoners” mean business and if anyone doubts that they can look at Dog for an example of what they will do. Dog’s real name is April, but absolutely no one calls her that. No one would dare. The Beckoners own Dog’s misery and intend to keep it going. Zoe learns just a little too late who she is dealing with. By the time the Beckoners’ more criminal traits emerge, Beck has taken a shining to Zoe and inducted her into their little gang. Now Zoe can only decide which hell to live in – that of bully or bullied.
Zoe’s world is bleak. Her mother is immature, self-involved, and oblivious to what is going on. Her high school is filled with ineffective adults who barely manage to hold down the peace but do little to stop the Beckoners from inflicting their daily misery on whomever they’ve singled out for special treatment. Her first tentative friends, a gay couple, Teo and Simon, offer advice, but don’t want to risk the Beckoners’ wrath by offering real support. Given these factors, it’s not hard to see why Zoe makes the bad decisions she does. However, Zoe herself can be pretty unlikable. Frustrated with her unpaid babysitter status, she will sometimes take it out on her two-year-old sister. She immediately pities April/Dog for what the Beckoners inflict on her, but she is sometimes cruel to her even in private when the pressure to bully is off. She also looks the other way when someone she knows is being hurt is in trouble.
The other characters are equally flawed. The adults are uniformly useless, April is passive/aggressive, and her parents are criminally inactive about the bullying she undergoes regularly. Mac presents them as stereotypical not-too-bright happy-clappy evangelical Christians who care about April and care for her everyday needs. But many instances of the Beckoners’ bullying are very public – at one point they break all the windows of April’s house and van with stones – and not ignorable. What does it say about them that they allow her to continue to attend school with all of this abuse going on?
In a book about bullying you would expect that some insults would fly, and there are plenty of nasty things said, including ugly homophobic stuff. And many characters repeatedly make very snide comments about Christians and Christianity, including Mac. These remarks go unchecked and unexamined. It’s hard to imagine that an editor would let this kind of stuff go if the remarks were directed at Jews or Wiccans. I found this very off-putting.
As The Beckoners moves toward its climax, the story becomes more and more violent, culminating in a final, very upsetting scene. But then, that scene over, Mac switches gears and tacks on a more upbeat ending that clashes with the book’s overall dark, nihilistic tone. This is not the book’s only forced element – April’s eventual friendship with Simon also stands out – but it is the most noticeable one.
The Beckoners has some decent elements to it. The book is very readable, Zoe’s home situation seems authentic and tension-filled, and the premise, bullying, is something most readers have experienced in at least a small way. But reading this story is a bit like falling into a cold, scummy pond for a few hours. You just want to forget about it when you manage to crawl your way out.