“Never be sorry, never be frightened, never be careful – those were the rules of Lacey. Play by the rules, win the game: Never be alone.”

I agree with Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman (HarperCollins, 2016), the Cure is the universal cure for all that ails us. Just reliving my teenage years over here. You know you’re old when you experienced the time of historical fiction! Ok so my highschool years weren’t quite as action packed, but The Screaming Trees, Urge Overkill, Sonic Youth and Kurt were the soundtrack to my soul. And River Phoenix had my besotted heart somewhere between Sneakers and My Own Private Idaho.

“I knew we were better together than we were alone, and better still than everyone else, and that was enough.”

Before Lacey, Hannah Dexter was a nobody: bullied by Nikki (essence of bitch) Drummond and alone. Lacey moves to town, tells Hannah to change her awful name, and Dex starts living life.

“we would get high only for a higher purpose, Lacey had decreed.”

When Lacey decrees that Dex needs to lose her virginity, Dex finds herself in the scungy bathroom of a feral club, kissing some guy. After admiring her boobs, he continues,

“Do you, like, feel yourself up all the time? That’s what I’d do if I was a girl.”

(I think this guy went to my school.) Lacey knows how to pick em. And yes, Lacey makes all the decisions in their somewhat lopsided friendship. When Jesse isn’t a satisfactory candidate, Lacey takes him upstairs to “get it out of his system.” You’re welcome.

“Smash the right two particles together in the right way and you get a bomb. That’s us, Dex. Accidental fusion.”

Lacey often goes too far. That time she baptized her baby brother into the satanic church, and worse. Dex half-heartedly questions her, then goes along with everything. At least they didn’t burn down the church “Teen Pregnancy Center.”

“according to Lacey I had the lyrics all wrong. I sang like it sounded to me, because those words sounded right: I loved you I’m not going back I killed you I’m not going back.”

I love this nod to Nirvana’s indecipherable lyrics. After music critic Dave Marsh found out the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” what he’d thought they were was so much better than Cobain’s words. Now I have “Lithium” on repeat in my head, that’s how deep it’s ingrained in my psyche.

Girls on Fire + Kurt
haven’t listened to In Utero since my days of turning around the cover of every CD* (the unplugged session would be in this pile but a junky stole it, very 1990s)

“it was only ours the way everything was ours: because the world we created between the two of us was secret and wholly owned”

Alongside their wild adventures, there’s something Lacey isn’t telling Dex. In the chapters narrated by Lacey, the reader starts to piece together what happened in the summer before junior year. In the fetid days right after Lacey moved to Battle Creek, she made friends in the woods outside town. She might know more about what happened to golden boy Craig Ellison in those same woods on Halloween night, back when Dex was still Hannah Dexter.

“I understood how a boy could go into the woods with a bullet and a gun and not come out. That there was no conspiracy, no evil influences or secret rituals; that sometimes there was only pain and the need to make it stop.”

When their parents find out what Lacey and Dex have been up to, all hell breaks loose. There’s grounding and christian summer camp, not quite Club Med with Jesus, more concentration camp. This only fuels Lacey’s hate with more fire and someone has to pay.

“my secret self, the scarecrow-Lacey built of twigs and mud and bark, the Lacey who was made of forest and would someday be summoned home.”

I didn’t like the ending of Girls On Fire. I knew things were building to something horrific, and perhaps I’m just too squeamish. Or I think no one deserves any of what happened, even after the choices they made. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it had to be nasty, but my imagination never quite caught up with Robin Wasserman’s. I kind of wish I stopped reading at p.339. I didn’t want that collapse into

“concrete and irrevocable truth.”

Long before the end, I wondered what Dex and Lacey would think of Kurt Cobain’s actual death, when death was so central to their friendship. That aside was clever, another conspiracy theory from the time. And I only got there by reading past p.339, good thing I did.


*I know I’m a total sell-out to have these on CD, but the tapes didn’t survive Leavers at Rotto. Don’t worry, we wore pieces of Nirvana tape on our wrists all thru Leavers.

Girls On Fire