Loa suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it’s not from one thing; it’s from her life in general. Loa lives in rural Montana and over the course of her young life, she’s seen a lot. The younger sister she loved and cared for died young due to a horrible genetic disorder that caused her to never really “grow up.” Loa’s friend Esther was killed in a freak accident that now haunts her because she was there when it happened. Oh, and when Corey decides to befriend her, he may or may not be backstabbing her when he moves away, on to “bigger and better things.” On top of that, dad’s lost his job and the family’s got no insurance to cover their medical bills.
Loa’s got potential and quite a lot of it. She’s a math and science genius; the concepts fascinate her, and when she’s given the opportunity to catch up on some classwork by her physics teacher, she’s eager to discover what he means when he asks her to describe the Freak Observer.
The Freak Observer, despite being a short book, is a powerful one. This is the sort of thing that needs to be read alone, in quiet. Woolston’s packed a lot into this book, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily easy to read or easy to understand. Loa’s story starts with tragedy, but the story isn’t told linearly. Rather, the story unravels through moments in the past to moments in the present, and there is use of dreams throughout to tie some things together. Loa is mentally unstable, and as we watch her unpack her life, we begin to understand why she is the way she is.
What I liked about this book was the setting and the contemporary reality that pours from it. Woolston’s given the character a believable rural life, right down to how her mother and father met. I can feel the desolation and the challenges that come with the setting and I can imagine the difficulties Loa has because of it. Loa couldn’t order pizza for delivery, a novelty so many don’t think twice about. Obviously, the difficulties were much deeper than that, but those moments ground the story in the setting. Likewise, the issues brought up with the loss of a job and the loss of insurance were incredibly real, and I thought the reactions Loa had to it were authentic. I felt her bitterness and resentment.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Susan Shaw’s One of the Survivors. The age groups these are written for are quite different (and the maturity one needs for The Freak Observer is higher than that of the Shaw title) but the exposition was similar: the reader goes in knowing something horrible has happened to the main character, and it is through the character reliving and reflecting upon their experiences that we as readers begin to not only “get” the story, but we also “get” the character. Joey Campbell and Loa Lindgren would probably have gotten along well had they been the same age.
At the end of the book, Loa’s life changes dramatically, and because of the character-driven nature of this story, readers will be relieved. For me, this book was draining to read — emotionally dense and at times physically exhausting. There was so much to grasp at and the pacing felt slow, given the technique of shifting time sequences. While these works, it makes the narrative decelerate; there is a lot to get here. Draining, though, isn’t an insult here. It’s an essential aspect to experiencing the story.
I have to admit there were things in this book I just didn’t get. There’s a lot of discussion of math and physics here that were beyond me, but I think that in and of itself will be a huge draw for many readers. It’s rare we get a strong book written with those themes.
Hand this one off to readers of edgy, realistic books. There is a lot of language to consider, and the challenges Loa must overcome are not light. The slower pacing and the writing style will not be every teen’s cup of tea, but this is the kind of book that when in the right hands, will mean a lot. Give it to fans of One of the Survivors, but maybe give it a shot to your stronger readers and graduates of Ellen Hopkins and Gail Giles. Fans of Steve Brezenoff’s Absolute Value of -1 will dig this one, too.
This was a very interesting debut novel — perhaps the one that made me stop and reflect the most — and suffice to say, I’m eager to see where Woolston takes me next.