Coming of age stories are nothing new, and neither are stories about characters who are “on the run.” Yet when these types of stories are executed in an original fresh way, it’s impossible to not find yourself being invested in the characters and themes. That was my experience when reading Lori Ann Stephens’ upcoming novel, Blue Running. In this novel, Stephens manages to take the classic thriller style story of a young girl, or rather two young women, on the run, desperate to escape their past actions, and melds it with a heartfelt coming of age story. The end result of this can only be described as one of the most nail-biting depictions of adolescence I’ve ever read.
In the beginning of the story we meet our narrator, Blue Andrews, a fourteen year old girl who lives with her alcoholic deputy of a single father. Through her eyes we get to see the beautiful yet harsh landscape she lives in, the town of Blessing, located in the state of Texas. Although in this world, Texas is no longer a state, but rather an independent Republic that has seceded from the rest of the United States. In this post-secession world of Texas guns are mandatory, even for people as young as Blue. It’s not long into this story before a tragic accident occurs where Blue's best friend is shot and killed. Despite this event being a genuine accident, the close minded and unforgiving people of Blessing point their fingers at Blue. With this, our narrator decides to escape her harsh surroundings, and in her attempt to do so meets a young Latin American woman named Jet. While Jet is secretive of her past, Blue takes to her immediately as it seems that they are both equally desperate to flee this place they feel so oppressed by. With that, both of these young women join forces in an attempt to escape their brutal surroundings, and the rollercoaster that is their story continues from there.
If what I just described sounds like a riveting feature film, you are not alone in thinking that. As I was reading this book it felt as though there was a screen playing in my mind, and I was getting to watch the story unfold. While this might just be my background in film school talking, this is truly a testament to Lori Ann Stephens’ prose. The story itself is delivered in a way that invokes strong images in the reader’s mind. Between descriptions of this fictional yet all too real feeling depiction of Texas, the body language/sensory elements of the characters, and the steady pacing, it’s hard not to imagine this story playing out beautifully on the silver screen. To describe this book as cinematic might lead one to think that the act of consuming the story is a passive one, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This cinematic quality is part of what makes Blue Running as immersive as it is.
For example, during a scene where Blue’s school goes into a lockdown, she states, “For a second, everyone in the cafeteria looked at each other. I looked at Maggie – her gaze was already locked on me. Two creatures frozen, eyes bulging, hearts thumping. Then the teachers waved their arms like wings, mother ducks shepherding us to the edges of the room. The lights went out in sections – one, two, three – and left us in the shadows beneath the high windows” (18-19).
One can almost imagine the shots of Blue and Maggie's terrified faces cutting back and forth between each other, or even a tracking shot of quivering-crying children huddled on the floor as each section is cast into darkness. By having the story play out in such a vivid cinematic fashion, Stephens doesn’t just build a scene on the page, but rather builds it around the reader, making them feel as though they are strapped into this ride as well.
Another part of what makes this novel work as well as it does is the combination of the series of intense dramatic moments with such a fundamentally warm character as Blue. In the beginning of the story, Blue introduces herself and her environment in a way that elicits sympathy, and for readers like myself, empathy. We meet her as a young girl who is trying to make sense of her world, and survive the unfortunate circumstances she was born into. Between her alcoholic father, absent mother, and the harsh place that Texas has become, and the common struggles many of us face as a teenager, we naturally start to develop a connection with this main character. In a moment of adolescent hopelessness, our narrator states, “Everyone was so tall and the halls were so wide. Between classes, I trailed behind strangers who laughed and teased and jostled each other, all of us wading our way to the next class. Swept by a strange desperation, I once laughed with a group of older girls in front of me like I belonged to them, until one of them turned around and smirked, ‘Why are you laughing, girl?’ I shrugged and ducked away, my cheeks hot with shame” (9). With narration like this, the reader not only gets a clear image of the situation, but also a strong sense of Blue’s feelings of isolation. It’s moments like this that make us seamlessly feel affection towards her.
It’s because of this that the drama in the story works as well as it does. If we as the reader did not have a connection with Blue, or even Jet, the drama would lose a lot of its punch. On the other hand, if the drama was not present, our connections towards these characters would not be as emphasized. This is the brilliance in combining a coming of age story with an “on the run” style thriller: both elements of those types of stories add depth to each other.
In an essay Stephens wrote for Glimmer Train, she expressed the struggles and advantages that come with writing a story in first person. She explained how writers who take the first person approach have a better chance of telling a story with more “soul” to it. After reading this book, I feel that that is exactly what this story has: soul. Blue Running has a broken yet beautiful adolescent spirit that lives on every page, and will ignite that same spirit in all of its readers.