One of the most infuriating tropes in YA literature, or crime fiction in general really, is the protagonist knowing a giant secret and deciding that they will do a better job investigating than the police. Now, I’m not going to say I never read these books. Hell, I’ve written them. I even understand why this exists, but it gets overused and often quite badly. You spend most of the book yelling at the characters to get their heads out of their asses and talk to the cops. But in Freaks Like Us, Vaught is able to tell this exact type of story without the reader ever really feeling that way. You actually understand why our protagonist never tells the police what he knows.
Jason (Freak), I’m going to call the kids by their real names instead of their nicknames, is a high school student with two best friends – one boy, one girl. They’ve been friends most of their lives. They live close together. They ride the same bus. They take the same classes. They’re members of the alphabet kids – each with their own classification. Each with its own symptoms and behaviours. Derrick has severe ADD/ADHD. Jason is schizophrenic. Sunshine is selectively mute. I didn’t even know that was a thing until I read the book, but I was explaining the premise to a friend who teaches these types of classes and she assured me it absolutely is.
Derrick is always moving, always talking, always producing energy. Even though he is a part of the trio, he’s sort of a background character. He’s their friend, but the big relationship here is Jason and Sunshine. These kids are pretty self-aware. They know what they have. They know what happens when they don’t control it. They know how other people feel about them. They even have their own hierarchy of disorders within their class – even if no one outside their classes recognizes it. Kids prone to violence are stuck in with kids who aren’t. It’s just the way it is. One alphabet is the same as another in the view of the school. Let’s blame this on the fact that schools are treated more like daycares than centres of learning and often have to do whatever they can to make their budgets work. School budgets… it isn’t the point of this novel, but (and there are spoilers from this point on, accept it) they are part of the plot. The lack of funding leads to a convicted child sex offender being put in charge of a group of minors. Unacceptable!
The premise of the book is pretty simple – the three kids are having a regular day when Sunshine goes missing. The rest of the book is spent trying to find her. The plot is one we’ve read before. It’s the characters that make it special. Even if nothing else happened, the fact that these aren’t your run of the mill kids would make the book stand out. But Jason’s parents are crucial to the way the story unfolds. His father is friends with the police chief. The way his is questioned at the very beginning is handled gently because of this relationship. Jason isn’t pressed the way he might have been by another officer. Then there’s Jason’s mother. She’s in the military, with access to resources that allow the search for Sunshine to unfold much faster than it otherwise might have. Not only is Sunshine seventeen, but she’s looked at as the type of kid that might wander off. It’s no secret that kids with special needs are often treated differently than your typical missing child. It would be nice if this statement wasn’t true, or if it was something that never even occurred to people, but it’s true. However, Jason’s mother brings in the FBI, and lawyers, right away and gets the search really underway very quickly.
I could talk about the mystery and how it unfolds over the course of the novel, but it’s kind of the least important aspect of the plot. Jason’s differences are highlighted throughout the story, but he struggles with something a lot of kids struggle with – if you promise to keep a secret, when is it okay to break that promise? When does telling make you right instead of just a tattletale? The answer is often a lot sooner than these secrets are revealed, but as teens, we hold these confidences firm. The sense of loyalty we possess as teens diminishes as we become adults and understand the bigger picture, but at the time, it seems like the most important thing. Jason doesn’t want to break his promise to Sunshine. He literally can’t. For him, she is the bigger picture. He loves her (and I really think he does) and breaking her trust would make him unworthy of her affection. But beyond that base loyalty, he’s also saddled with the inability to know if what he thinks she told him is actually something she told him. Confused? Yeah, so is he. Jason is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever read. Not because he’s untrustworthy or prone to exaggerating, but because he really doesn’t know what is true and what isn’t.
The narrative is challenging. We get the story completely from Jason’s perspective. Jason and his voices. Every time he thinks something, so do his voices. They insert random strings of thought that make Jason, and the reader, question everything Jason’s just asserted. Are the voices telling him the truth or are they just voices? The more he tries to remember what Sunshine told him, the louder they get. Every time Jason tries to remember, long, running, piecey memories make their way into the narrative. It is very hard to read. Hard in both the god-this-would-be-awful-to-live-with way but also just confusing to read. You have to take pieces of each set of voices and fit them together to figure out Jason’s truth.
Jason’s relationship with his parents is as complicated as his voices. He lives with his father most of the time. His mother is the firmer authority figure. Jason prefers living with his father. His voices are quieter there. He feels more secure. He has a better routine. He trusts his father more than his mother. But the reality is that Jason can be unpredictable, especially if he isn’t taking his meds properly. So his parents are legitimately worried that he might have done something to Sunshine and just not remember it. They both know that Jason isn’t telling them everything. They can tell that there is something there, but they know that even Jason might not know what that is. Jason expects his mother to suspect him, but when he realizes that his father thinks that he might have hurt Sunshine, he loses his grip on reality just a little bit more. Reliable relationships are crucial in his life. They’re crucial for everyone, but for Jason, they really help keep him together.
Even as an unreliable narrator, Jason is still compelling and sympathetic. You never know if he’s telling us everything. We’re never sure if he’s actually responsible, until we’re sure. But the story always leaned towards the hopeful – except for his secret. For his voices to get this loud. For them to try so hard to keep him from accessing Sunshine’s voice. You know it’s gotta be a big deal. And of course, it is. This isn’t a little secret. This isn’t Sunshine telling him she’s mildly unhappy. This is the big secret. The sexual abuse secret. And that brings up bigger, realer questions. When a child like Sunshine is being abused, when she has a disorder that doesn’t allow her to speak to others, how does she tell? The name of the disorder sounds like it’s her choice, but it’s not. She really can’t speak to most people. How does she tell? She only speaks to the people she trusts – people who are either in the same situation as her (Jason and Derrick), who would create bigger problems (her brother), or who are responsible for bringing the abuser into her life (her mother). What can you do for a kid like this? How will you ever know what’s happening? But her brother figures it out, and instead of leaning into his violent tendencies, he finds an out for his sister.
The themes in this book are huge. For something that’s so tiny – really, it’s very short – it’s a long read. I could have finished it in a couple hours – lengthwise – but the content, the content is heavy. There are so many realities. Do we talk about how children with disorders are treated in the public school system? Do we talk about sexual abuse against children? Do we talk about how our school systems are so underfunded that they often can’t do proper background checks on their teachers? Do we talk about the underground community that needs to exist because there are so many women who are victims of abuse? Notice there are questions here that I haven’t addressed in the review? Yeah, that’s because there’s just so much happening in this book. It’s both full of hope and so utterly hopeless all at once. It’s messy, and scary, and necessary to look at the whole person, not just one aspect. Freaks Like Us is absolutely worth the read.