Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

Tricks is the separate but interwoven and common-themed stories of five average teenagers, between the ages of 15-18. Eden is a genuinely nice person, though not nearly as much of a repentant Christian as her Pentecostal-Priest father and sycophantic mother would want her to be; she falls in love with a boy who, though decent and Christian, is outside their uber-stringent faith and, because of this, she gets shipped off to a religious youth prison, where the parents hope to have the devil exorcised out of her (because a teenager falling in love out of wedlock must equate to possession). Seth is a gay teen, about to graduate from a rural Indiana high school. He falls for an older man in Kentucky who eventually deserts him and, after delicate letters between the two are disclosed to Seth’s father, he is kicked out and forced to give himself up to older men in order to keep himself housed and fed.

Whitney seems to come from the most stable place. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her mother and sometimes with her father (who spends most of him time in San Francisco, on business). She has an older sister who is on college and who tends to steal the lime-light; but Whitney meets a nice boy who treats her right, until she gives him her virginity. After that, she is never quite the same. She becomes vulnerable to the types of advances that a handsome, well-practiced pimp might play on her. Ginger has had a horrible life, since about the age of ten, when her hooker mother started selling Ginger to her clients as well. Ginger is still a decent girl, though, who loves her grandmother and who does all she can to help take care of her mother’s other children, since no one else will. She escapes with her girlfriend (lesbians – to clarify), only the escape isn’t much of an escape at all. Ginger is forced to turn herself into her mother in order to survive.

Finally, we have Cody, a well-meaning, typical teenage boy – he has friends, girlfriends, and a dopey job. He likes sex and gambling and driving around in his car. He has a troubled younger brother, but a great mother and step-father. Then, the step-father passes away, the house is threatened to be taken from them, Cody’s gambling problem leads them further and further into debt and, suddenly, Cody realizes he must find ways – even the most horrifying and degrading ways to a teenage boy – to care for his family. These five characters are “the tricks.” They all find their ways – willingly or not – from their hometowns across the country (Indiana, Idaho, California) to the breeding ground of sin and depravity, Las Vegas. Here, their separate stories are woven into one harrowing song.

Each of the characters’ stories is well-developed and believable, though terrifying and sad in its own way. While it can be a bit difficult to follow the timeline, since each small chapter is a new narrator, it is still possible to distinguish between the two male characters, for instance, and the three females. Still, much of this is due in part to the scenery and the characters surrounding them, not to mention the subject matter. When sexuality is one of the main forces, it makes it much easier to recall which character is in play at the moment. The characters’ language and tone –dialect, slang, inflection, vocabulary, etc. – were nearly identical, though they were all from different social, religious, and economic backgrounds and from different parts of the country. This was, in my opinion, one failing of the novel. That being said, each of the characters did show some growth (negative or positive) throughout their own portions of the book. Each character changed in some way, and so was distinguishable from his or herself when comparing the start of his or her journey to the end of it. Had this not been accomplished, I do not know whether the book would have served much purpose at all; fortunately, the argument is moot because the characters did experience much, and changed in many ways, even though it was hard to tell who was talking when (I sometimes had to flip back a few pages to see the name of the speaker at the start of the segment).

I was intrigued by and happy with the prose and style over-all. The narrative is broken up into little pieces of intermingling story-telling. Each character’s story progresses in time but the stories are split up so that the characters have equal speaking time, and so the reader gets to see where each character is and what he or she is doing as time moves forward. Also, it is written in a type of free-verse which, fortunately, is actually just free prose. There are interesting short poems that start each chapter and that (I noticed after two or three) contain a one-sentence subject matter indicator taken from each poem. Also, the final line from one story becomes the entrance line and/or theme for the next character’s story. It was all quite cute – I’m not sure how else to put it. It works very well, it is engaging and it moves the story along very well. Though the entire book also appears to be written in verse, due to the structure, it is not. Given the sensitive subject matter and the need to connect each of these individual characters with an over-arching thematic element, I think the style was a good choice – it allows the book to work as a cohesive collection rather than a hodgepodge of inter-connected but spliced short-stories.

I truly enjoyed the many ways which the book’s structure allowed the story to work together as one larger element. The short poems and creative threads which wove from one story to the next, though the characters had nothing to do with one another, was great – because the characters were all dealing with the same issues: survival, sexuality, abuse, and making adult choices. Being a J.D. Salinger fan, I cannot help but think how horrified he would be to read a work like this, which places young adults in such dangerous, precarious situations, with no real hope in sight. A majority of the five characters do not “get out” of their situations and this, in a way, makes the book hard to like. It also garners a great respect for the author. The subject matter she delves into here is not fun or light-hearted, so one would hope for a happy resolution, at least, particularly since the subjects are children. Hopkins knows, though, that un-happy endings do happen, particularly to these groups of children impacted in such a way – forced to sell their bodies to survive; caught in an inescapable web of drugs and abuse; lost to any chance at resolution or reunion with their families. As an end note, I can understand why parents would not want their children reading this book. It is scary and it is dangerous. If I were a parent, I would be horrified to learn that my children were exposed to these types of themes, this type of language. That being said, if I were a teenager – I would absolutely pick up a book like this, in part because of the dangerous elements and also in part because I was a teenager like these teenagers; I knew kids who were in trouble, kids whom no one knew how to talk to, whom everyone whispered about. Perhaps, if I had more exposure to responsible literature, done for a purpose and not just to be shocking or pornographic, I might have had a better understanding of what was happening around me; of how to deal with it; of where to get help.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0

One Comment on “Tricks by Ellen Hopkins

  1. Remarkable review. I love how you see things differently and then I can see them more clear. I really appreciate the way that review and like your style. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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