Matthew has five rules of survival:
“1. Sometimes, the people who mean you harm are the ones who say they love you.
2. Fear is your friend. When you feel it, act.
3. Protect the little ones.
4. If you coped before, you can cope now.
5. Always remember, in the end, the survivor gets to tell the story.”
Matthew has spent the last seventeen years standing between his abusive mother and his two younger sisters. His father is afraid of Nikki and hasn’ t been around in years (though he sends his child support checks faithfully). The children’s aunt lives downstairs and is also a frequent victim of Nikki’s verbal and emotional abuse.
The Rules of Survival is told as a retrospective, a letter from Matt to his youngest sister, Emmy. Clearly manic, their mother latches onto Emmy as her primary victim. But when she begins dating Murdoch, life seems normal. The dad they never had, all three kids immediately fall in love with him. They spend nights watching tv at his house, they have picnics on the beach, and he is a better parent than they ever had before. Nikki soon becomes jealous of the attention Murdoch showers on the children and breaks up with him. So begins a downward spiral for Nikki and her kids.
This is a haunting depiction of child abuse as experienced by a young boy. Only seventeen years old, he is far older inside thanks to what he has experienced. Matthew is writing the story as a letter to Emmy, in case she ever has questions about their life with Nikki. He doesn’t know if he will ever have the courage to give it to her, but he knows he needs to write it down. There were points in the story when I had to put the book down- Nikki is manic and abusive. The way she treats her kids is absolutely terrifying. Nancy Werlin’s writing manages to make you feel like you are right their with Matthew, seeing what is happening to him and his sisters.
I booktalked this to my students and they were very receptive. It’s slowly making the rounds with my biggest realistic fiction fans and is opening their eyes to a world they didn’t know existed. Despite the heavy themes, the vocabulary is simple and not over the heads of my sixth-graders. But this is a story that needs to be read and shared, as there are too many children out there today who live the life that Matthew describes.