June 06, 2016

Spirit Level

by Sarah N. Harvey
Orca Book Publishers
233 pp.
Ages 12-16
February 2016

Spirit Level has nothing to do with spirits of the ethereal kind but it has everything to do with spirit of the attitude, strength and will variety. And with all the issues Spirit Level confronts–family, homelessness, donor conception and transgender youth–it is a young adult novel with a lot of guts.

Harriet a.k.a. Harry is seventeen, and the daughter of Della, a college sociologist, and honorary granddaughter of Verna, the widow who runs Verna’s Salon and took Della in and off the street when she was Harry’s age.   Now the three are essentially family and they continue to give back to their community.  Verna, with Della and Harry’s help, offers shampoos and hair styling for her “Sunday ladies”, an assortment of homeless and poor women who could not afford the treatment. Della is doing research on homeless girls, giving them voice about their circumstances. And Harry is working three summers jobs: dog walking, working at the salon, and transcribing her mom’s interviews with the girls who live on the street or couch surf.

There is no father in Harry’s life because her birth was by donor sperm.  After reading an article about a man who fathered 500 children, Harry decides she will finally check out the Donor Sibling Registry to learn about any siblings she might have. Within days she hears from and meets the exuberant Lucy, a fifteen-year-old dancer who also lives in Seattle and introduces Harry to two other half-sibs, Adam in Portland and Ben in Australia.  Lucy is ecstatic to make this connection, and even more so when another sister, Meredith, 18, who relocated to Seattle from Missoula with her best friend Alex, contacts them, hopeful of getting them on side to search for the donor himself.  Lucy, the consummate oversharer and all-in-girl is quite taken with Meredith, though Harry, the level-headed one, is reluctant to pursue this avenue and even more so to trust Meredith.  However, she does become involved with Meredith’s BFF Alex, displeasing Meredith.

As the siblings and friends and family meet and interact, the possibility of meeting the donor who helped conceive the three teens (and their far-away brothers) looms.  But, with the sensible Harry hesitant to agree to it and Alex pursuing Harry–though because he likes her or to get her on Meredith’s side is the question–Harry feels the need to do her Harriet the Spy routine and go in search of some answers, learning far more than she expected about Meredith, Alex and even herself.

There’s a lot going on in Spirit Level and I’ve barely touched on the homeless girls whose stories provide a different wallpaper from the family situations of Harry, Lucy and Meredith.  Their stories are integral to the book and to Harry specifically who begins to see her “problems” and family differently, taking wisdom from their challenges and attitudes, and ultimately she is able to make good for herself and at least one other homeless teen while continuing to evolve her own family circle.  

As I’ve mentioned, Sarah N. Harvey embeds a lot in Spirit Level, from homeless youth to mental health and donor conception and transgendering, but the message is still clear:  when life becomes uncertain and even chaotic, it is what it is and you begin as you mean to go on, go on as you began (two of Verna’s multitude of sayings).

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