Outside In by Sarah Ellis
Lynn has a busy life with two best friends, choir, and a mother who keeps messing things up. Her mother can’t hold down a job and the man who has brought a lot of stability to their little family for a few years has just left because her mother cheated on him. Luckily, he is allowing them to keep living in his condo for a few months. When Lynn chokes on a butterscotch candy at the bus stop, an unknown person helps her. All Lynn knows about the person is that they were wearing a plaid skirt. Lynn sets out to find them, but it isn’t until she gives up that Blossom introduces herself. As her choir sets off to the United States for a competition, Lynn discovers that her mother hasn’t sent in the paperwork for her passport so she can’t attend. Her friends head out without her and Lynn starts to get closer to Blossom, a strange girl who talks about disguising herself as a “citizen” and lives off the grid. Soon Lynn has been drawn into the incredible alternate life of Blossom and her family. But some things they are doing may not actually be legal and in order to be part of their lives Lynn has to promise to never reveal that they exist. Lynn’s life works as long as the two worlds remain completely separate, but how long can she lie to her friends and mother?
Ellis is a Canadian author and this book is clearly set in Canada. Lynn’s own family life is portrayed realistically and with great empathy both for her and for her mother. There is no great villain here, only humans who make mistakes. The lives of the “Underlanders” are shown as a balanced mix of utopian and harsh. The moral questions about what they are doing emerge very naturally as the plot moves forward. Then at the same time, Lynn herself is struggling with the moral ambiguity of lying to her loved ones about what she is doing in order to keep the Underlanders safe. Again, there are no right answers here, it is about the puzzles of good and bad, wrong and right.
Lynn is a fairly straightforward character caught in a world where her mother is eccentric and unreliable but her friends are her rocks. Her new relationship with Blossom captures the fact that she has some of her mother in her as well, something that wants a simpler life and a more unique and meaningful one. Ellis manages to show this without ever mentioning it, allowing her readers to deeply understand Lynn beyond what Lynn does herself.
A complex and short novel for teens, this book is richly written, filled with ethical choices, and made beautiful by a glimpse into another way of life. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.