Lia's life is ruled by numbers: number of bites, number of calories, number of pounds. If she doesn't stay on top of her food intake every second of every day, she will succumb to her weaknesses, and she will prove to herself and the world just how stupid, ugly, and fat she really is. Sometimes Lia is sure that all she needs to do is open up the shell of her body so all the bad will just flow out. Or maybe she needs to use the razor so that she can feel something—anything.
Lia has been in the clinic twice already. She's living with her father and stepmother pretending to be normal when she learns that her childhood friend, Cassie, has died alone at eighteen in a dingy motel room. Her esophagus has ruptured from vomiting too much and too violently. She called Lia thirty-three times the weekend that she died. And thirty-three times, Lia didn't answer her phone.
But Cassie won't stay in her coffin and won't stay buried. She haunts Lia's nights and shows up in unexpected places. She misses Lia and wants her friend to cross the line and join her where it's possible to sleep and eat and not feel pain.
Lia's goal is eighty-five pounds, but maybe eighty or seventy-five or seventy might not be bad. If only she can stay strong (stupid fat lazy as she is), she will make it. If only she can convince her parents not to place her in a psychiatric ward or back in the clinic. If only she didn't hurt so much. If only she could raise her arms or walk across the room. If only she could get warm.
It is impossible to convey the emotional strength of Wintergirls. The language is beautiful, even as it describes horrific scenes:
The box opens and the razors slide out, whisper sweet.
Used to be that my whole body was my canvas—hot cuts licking my ribs, ladder rungs climbing my arms, thick milkweed stalks shooting up my thighs. . . .
I inscribe three lines, hush, hush, hush, into my skin. Ghosts trickle out. (p. 61)
Anderson holds nothing back: the self-hating mantras, the cutting, the vomiting, the pain, the hallucinations, the wish to die. All is laid out in Lia's words. It is a difficult book to read, yet it's impossible to turn away from it. The look into the mind and life a girl who is essentially starving herself to death is riveting. It's creepy. You wonder at your own fascination.
Most modern women face body image issues. Pretty much everyone wishes she could lose just five, ten, twenty, fifty pounds. Everyone looks in the mirror and sees fat thighs, fat arms, big nose, frizzy hair, bad skin. But Lia has lost the ability to see:
The girl reflected back from the window . . . [has] the shape of a breakfast-link sausage standing on broomstick legs, her arms made from twigs, her face blurred with an eraser. I know that it is me, but it's not me, not really. I don't know what I look like. I can't remember how to look. (pp. 83–84)
They yell at me because I can't see what they see. Nobody can explain to me why my eyes work different than theirs. Nobody can make it stop. (p. 197)
Wintergirls exposes much of the secret behavior practiced by those suffering from eating disorders. Anorexia, bulimia, and self-mutilation are probably more common than many of us realize. I hope that by creating Lia and Cassie and telling us their stories, Anderson is able to break the cycle of self-hate in at least some of her readers. And I hope that the peek into Lia's thoughts will bring some understanding to those who are trying to reach out and save a loved one from a horrible death.
I listened to the unabridged recording of Wintergirls narrated by Jeannie Stith. The audio production was outstanding. Stith convincingly conveyed Lia's confusion, anguish, and pain. The end of the audio contained an author interview, including a reading of a poem Anderson wrote to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her novel Speak. The print version used a variety of design techniques to show blog posts, Lia's self-editing, and other types of text. The audio production successfully used some sound effects and Stith's voice to portray the same.
Laurie Halse Anderson has a website. There you will find a teacher guide, a list of resources, and other information for the interested reader.
Print published by Viking Juvenile, 2009
Unabridged audio by Brilliance, 2009
Challenges: A-Z Title, New Author, Support Your Library, Young Adult, 100+, 999