When sixteen-year-old Angel meets Call at the mall, he buys her meals and says he loves her, and he gives her some candy that makes her feel like she can fly. Pretty soon she’s addicted to his candy, and she moves in with him. As a favor, he asks her to hook up with a couple of friends of his, and then a couple more. Now Angel is stuck working the streets at Hastings and Main, a notorious spot in Vancouver, Canada, where the girls turn tricks until they disappear without a trace, and the authorities don’t care. But after her friend Serena disappears, and when Call brings home a girl who is even younger and more vulnerable than her to learn the trade, Angel knows that she and the new girl have got to find a way out.
A short time ago, if you had told me that I would willingly pick up a book about teenage prostitution in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, based during the time of the Pickton murders, I would have told you hell no, that would never happen.
Well, it happened.
I have never had the privilege of experiencing such a gritty subject written with such ethereal grace. Martine Leavitt chose, of all things, blank verse to convey her story. Minimalist, at best. The result is a story that would have most of us cringing in it’s bleakness and horror. Instead, it’s a soft blow delivered by breathtaking, rich prose, despite its dark theme.
It is the story of sixteen year old Angel. After the passing of her mother, her middle-class family, including her father and younger brother, begins to unravel. She spends more and more time at the mall, aimlessly wandering. There she meets Call, who steps in when she gets caught shoplifting a display shoe. He listens to her plight with a sympathetic ear and offers her ‘candy’ to help her feel better about missing her mother. It is not long before Angel’s father watches in listless abandon as his shoplifting, drug addict daughter packs her stuff to move in with the shady Call. Of course, we know the ensuing result of Angel’s predicament.
I went downstairs and through the store,
Slingin’ Ink Tattoo Parlour, to go out.
Tattoo–he’s the owner–
stared after me
wanting to needlework me,
wishing I could be his canvas.
He grabbed my arm, said,
don’t you wanna be my art?
won’t you let me choose?
not just copy some picture off the wall
but something out of my own head?
But Call says I’m supposed to be innocent,
clean baby-girl skin
so dates can paste on any face they want
and I can tell new dates it’s my first time
and I am thirteen even though I am sixteen,
Sixteen doesn’t make as much money as thirteen.
Serena was nineteen,
told dates she was sixteen,
told me she was a hundred down there.
Tattoo whispered to me,
I know what you are,
said, your skin could be the way
they know I’m alive.
Angel’s encounters with various people on the street invite glimpses of her world in a unique and innocent manner you wouldn’t expect with such subject matter. Most notably, there is a Mr. P who appears in a van from time to time, which inevitably ends with another missing girl. Angel can’t help but wonder if Mr. P is responsible for the recent disappearance of her friend Serena.
It is her missing friend that is the catalyst to Angel’s story, and she vows that she will escape her life with Call and return to her family. This decision is only solidified when Call brings home Melli, an 11-year-old from a group home. Angel takes Melli under her wing, and devises a plan that will save them both.
“Mr. P” indeed refers to Robert Pickton, who was convicted of killing 49 women from the Downtown Eastside in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Leavitt does not delve into the graphic details of this horrific event. She instead has dedicated the book to Pickton’s victims and provides information in the afterword.
The beauty of Leavitt’s approach to such a delicate topic of child prostituition is that you will find no disturbing graphic sex, or even any profanity. Angel’s story is one told with such devastating simplicity, yet will impact you like no other. I could go on and on, but this is simply the kind of book you must experience for yourself.