I had already finished reading YA thriller Sadie by Courtney Summers when I looked up the author and realized she was Canadian. I am thrilled to get a chance to think and write more about this book for Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian! I’m also excited to report that the book just won the 2019 Edgar Award (for mystery and thriller books) in the YA category. So very well deserved!
Sadie is an intense, heartbreaking book. It’s on the older end of the YA spectrum, and definitely a YA book that will hold appeal for adults as well. Sadie is a fascinating and gripping character. It’s the kind of novel that you’re left thinking about for a long time after you close the last page.
Sadie is a 19-year-old with nothing left to lose. She’s struggled for years to keep her and her younger sister Mattie’s heads afloat after their mom—who had drug abuse problems—left. She was doing her best to raise Mattie amidst poverty and very little support, even dropping out of school in order to be a better parent. When Mattie is found dead and her murder goes unsolved due to a lazy and botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to track down her younger sister’s killer. As I said, she has nothing left to lose. Mattie was her whole world. She doesn’t care if she makes it out of her investigation alive, she just wants answers … and revenge. As Sadie says:
“She’s dead,” I whisper and I don’t know why this is the thing I choose to say out loud because it hurts to say it, to feel the truth of those words pass my lips, to have them be real in this world. But She’s dead is the reason I’m still alive.
She’s dead is the reason I’m going to kill a man.
Sadie hits the road in her old car with only a few meager clues to follow up on. She connects with many people along the way: a cranky waitress at a truck stop diner, a fellow young woman who’s on the run whom Sadie picks up as a hitchhiker, some regular middle class high school kids whose lives are so unbelievably far from Sadie’s despite the fact that they’re the same age, and more.
You can’t help but feel for Sadie. Summers has done an excellent job in characterizing her—Sadie’s not an easy or a traditionally “likable” character (honestly, fuck that anyway) but she is so real, and so relatable. I especially liked how Sadie’s stutter was depicted—it’s there as something that Sadie has to deal with, that she knows affects people’s impressions of her, and that impacts her confidence and ability to talk with new people especially. But it doesn’t define her, and it doesn’t stop her from asking the hard questions she needs to while trying to find the answers she needs about what happened to Mattie.
My heart ached for Sadie, who is so starved for love and who has so much to give:
I tried not to think about that kind of stuff, because it was painful, because I thought I could ever have it, but when I did end up liking someone, it always made me ache right down to my core. I realized pretty early on that the who didn’t really matter so much. That anybody who listens to me, I end up loving them just a little.
I never know what to do with girls. Pretty girls. I want them to like me. It’s a strange, almost visceral *need* that settles itself inside and it makes me feel stupid and weak because I know it’s a fault line I can trace all the way back to my mother.But while the narrative follows Sadie on her journey to follow the clues to find the monster who murdered her sister, there is another story happening at the same time. The book alternates between Sadie’s story of going after the murderer and the transcript of a true crime Serial-esque podcast about Sadie and Mattie titled, aptly, “The Girls.” West McCray is a radio journalist who was working on a story about forgotten small-town America when he hears about Sadie’s story just by chance. This leads him to trace Sadie’s steps, trying to find Sadie before it’s too late to find her.
On the surface, this is another story centred around a dead girl. One of the first lines in the podcast is: “And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.” But it’s also about the girl who still lives, who is fighting tooth and nail for the girl who died and for herself, and for all the girls. The book is also an examination of true crime podcasts that take the real life horror stories of actual people, often women and girls, and bleed them for entertainment.
All in all, Sadie is a riveting story, or rather a set of two stories that will keep you turning pages. It is excellently told in Summers’s restrained, pitch perfect writing. I need to say: this book need a strong content warning for childhood sexual abuse and pedophilia, although this is not included in a gratuitous or exploitative way. This is a ferocious, devastating book. It is bleak. But Sadie is a book worth reading. For the girls.