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Born Ugly by B. Goobie

Goobie, Beth. Born Ugly. Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2011. Print.

Beth Goobie writes unflinching books. Even so, Born Ugly may be the toughest of hers I’ve read yet. Narrated by Shir Rutz, a 15-year-old girl without friends or caring family, this novel is both a realistic portrayal of high school bullying and a thriller that plays with perceptions of “goodness” in people. Goobie spends most of the novel focusing on the story of Shir’s problems, however, ultimately to the detriment of the thriller plot, which subsequently blocked me from a full immersion into the latter section of the book. Goobie is at her best when she is staring directly into the tough situations in which Shir finds herself, primarily through her status as the ugliest girl at her school. Shir is relentlessly targeted every day by a group of popular boys who offer her quarters in exchange for kisses, with the punch line that it is worth paying to kiss someone as ugly as her. She is known around the school as “dog face,” and is forced to eat a sandwich of dog feces.

Her home life is little better. Her mother clearly prefers her younger sister, who is prettier and better-behaved. Shir’s father has long since vanished, and Mrs. Rutz only mentions him when she is putting her daughter down, saying that Shir is an ugly drunk, just like her dad. Shir’s sister often knows about the pranks planned for Shir, and stands and watches from the sidelines without offering any help or comfort.

While Shir drinks heavily to erase the pain of her days from her mind, she has two small lights of hope: her part time job for Mr. Anderson delivering groceries, as well as an unexpected friendship with a boy she meets at her favourite hiding place under a town bridge. However, the job is not all it seems; Mr. Anderson has started to ask her to deliver packages to people and places that seem shady, and acts nervous if she asks too many questions. About the last third of the book follows the mystery to its revelation and climax.

Goobie’s descriptions of the dull inevitability of a bullied teenager’s life are extremely well-written, and painfully realistic. Shir is highly believable in her voice and actions, which gave me a real sense of the slow, awful path it can be through high school. It is also a relief to read the scenes between Shir and one of her delivery clients, an elderly woman who meets her with great kindness, and provides moving descriptions of how someone can respond to even the smallest bit of warmth. The slow pace of Shir’s daily life is the strongest story here, as compared to the mystery, which makes sense but is told far too quickly, and is wrapped up too neatly to seem authentic. Nonetheless, this is a book in which I think many teenagers will find some echo of their lives.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Allison Sivak

Allison Sivak is the Assessment Librarian at the University of Alberta Libraries. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Library and Information Studies and Elementary Education, focusing on how the aesthetics of information design influence young people’s trust in the credibility of information content.