AUTHOR: Libby Heily
APPROXIMATE LENGTH: 58,000 words
Recommended for readers seeking gritty stories of harsh reality.
Drama—Coming of Age
Tough Girl is a hard book to shelve. For the most part, it is the harrowing tale of an impoverished girl who escapes her harsh life by battling aliens in her imagination. Since the girl, Reggie, spends so much time in her imaginary world, large sections of this novel are dedicated to fleshing out her daydreams. In a way, it’s two novels in one—the harsh reality Reggie lives in and the fantastical sci-fi universe she escapes to. The latter reads like pulp sci-fi, involving aliens, battles, and warfare.
Tough Girl follows Reggie through her hard life in the rundown apartments of an American city. While it seems straightforward at first, things start unraveling in the second half. It’s a relatively short book and makes for a quick read.
Tough Girl is told from Reggie’s third person limited perspectives. The daydream chapters are told from the point of view of Reggie’s imaginary alter-ego, Tough Girl.
11-year-old Reggie lives a dangerous life in an ordinary world. A resident of the impoverished Apartments and cared for only by a mentally ill mother, she faces constant bullying at school as well as the real-world dangers presented by poverty. She escapes this harsh reality via her imaginary alter ego, Tough Girl, who battles aliens in a faraway fanciful land.
Tough Girl is told from Reggie’s point of view and follows her as she goes about her life. She never seems to catch a break—the big girl at school picks on her, the popular boy creeps on her, and then, to top it all off, her mother can’t feed her. Reggie’s quiet, introverted personality is a direct result of all that external trauma. She does her best to remain invisible, hiding away in the safety of her mind.
Tough Girl is what Reggie aspires to be. Reggie spends much of her time detailing the world Tough Girl occupies, and the book switches between Reggie’s real world and Tough Girl’s imaginary one. Tough Girl is something straight out of a pulp sci-fi novel: a tough-as-nails fighter who doesn’t take crap from anyone.
The contrast between real-world Reggie and Tough Girl highlights the character’s mental state. Reggie can’t cope with the harrowing reality she lives in, a reality she can’t defeat by kicking bad guys. Tough Girl’s world allows her a sense of triumph, even if it’s only in her own head. The harder Reggie’s life is, the more she relies on Tough Girl. She even incorporates elements from her life into her fantasies. For instance, after a distinctive new neighbor moves in, she turns him into a character for Tough Girl to tangle with.
After Reggie’s mother disappears, she starts losing control of her fantasies. The imaginary beasts invade her real-world vision, and she can no longer control how Tough Girl’s story unravels. Confusion and bewilderment reign until the very end, which throws in a surprising twist.
Heily’s writing mimics a child’s simple, innocent thoughts. The basic sentence structure and vocabulary reflect Reggie’s point of view. Hers is not a very complex mind—she sees things in a certain way and has a hard time understanding anything else. For instance, she knows to fear rape, but doesn’t even know what it really is. She doesn’t understand the advances of a boy at school. She also fears the foster care system, thinking that she’s better off alone with her mentally ill mother, even though living with her means starvation.
Reggie is easy to sympathize with and even admire. Simplistic as her thoughts are, she always keeps her head on straight and deals with her situation face-on and with honesty. Fiercely independent, she handles the brutality of her situation with admirable strength, even though that strength is somewhat misplaced. Heily has done a superb job in depicting a child’s naiveté in a believable manner, making the story ring true.
Tough Girl is a harsh, gritty tale that deals with disturbing themes both in Reggie’s reality and in Tough Girl’s imagined world. Its unapologetic and uncensored depictions can be hard to read, but ultimately rewarding.
THE NITPICKY STUFF
I found a handful of errors and typos, but for the most part, this book is well written and well edited.
Although Tough Girl features a young protagonist, it’s not a story for children. Many mature themes of violence and rape are touched upon. The actual depictions are mild, and the use of adult language is minimal.
Libby Heily lives in North Carolina with her husband and their dog, Daisy. She won the Pushcart Prize for her short story, "Grow Your Own Dad." Tough Girl is her debut novel.