These days, despite the very real threats to women’s bodily autonomy throughout the USA, both current, as depicted in Dawn Porter’s TRAPPED, and anticipated, as a multitude of court cases approach the newly conservative-leaning SCOTUS, many women don’t truly believe their right to end or carry a pregnancy will be lost. Randi Pink isn’t one of those women. GIRLS LIKE US is her frustrated manifesto in favor of reproductive rights. The novel details how unplanned pregnancies affect four different girls’ lives, and many other stories float in the sidelines as well.
This Young Adult novel won’t provide easy answers to anyone living on polarized political sides of reproductive rights. The stories of the girls are heartbreaking for sure, and uncomfortable at times, but each situation has nuance and respect for the characters. The novel also brings up clear and urgent issues that encourage anyone who reads the novel to explore various perspectives and experiences.
GIRLS LIKE US opens in 1972, pre-Roe, with sisters Izella and Ola, and it’s quickly clear that older sister Ola, whom Izella often calls stupid, is pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby. Izella immediately knows that “baby needed to become no baby.” A local seer gives Ola the means to end the pregnancy, but things go awry when her expectations are dashed by reality. The magical elements introduced by the seer, Mrs. Mac, feel natural and ominous.
Another girl in their town, Missippi, is an innocent, simple 14-year-old who has been repeatedly raped by her uncle. She is pregnant, and Ola and Izella’s mother, aptly named Evangelist, is helping to take care of her since Missippi’s mother died years ago. Her loving father ends up sending her to Chicago to Ms. Pearline, a woman who helps “girls like us” deliver their babies away from prying eyes and judgmental communities — and, in Missippi’s case, abusive uncles.
Sue is a wealthy, white, 17-year-old pregnant girl who also ends up in the Chicago apartment with Ms. Pearline. Despite having advantages the other girls could hardly dream of, one night of lapsed prophylactic use became an unwanted pregnancy. Sue and Missippi connect immediately, and issues of class and race are addressed lightly via her character. Sue’s mother has been helping and supporting Ms. Pearline for many years, and Sue’s father is a powerful, unsympathetic, anti-choice U.S. Senator.
The lives of three of these characters become tightly connected, and a final section of the book, set in the present, emphasizes underlying anxieties about the autonomy women enjoy being precarious and fragile via a girl all three characters deeply care for. GIRLS LIKE US is readable, compelling, and tender despite some clunky sections and oddly included details, especially about Sue’s mother.
Readers should know that child sexual abuse, a botched abortion, and a scene that could or could not be suicide are all included. This is in addition to light use of salty language and birth scenes, neither of which will be shocking to the targeted audience of 14+. My recommendation is to read the Author’s Note first. Randi Pink’s voice and motivation are clear and inspiring, and it provides strong context for the perspectives in the novel.