Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
WARNING: This book contains descriptions of severe sexual abuse that may be triggering to some readers.
When to Run, Born Scared by Stephanie King is one of the most heart-wrenching, engaging real-life stories we've ever read! You just can't turn away. You just can't stop flipping to pages to see what's going to happen next, hoping against all hope along with Stephanie that everything will finally be ok.
First of all, this book is TENSE and INTENSE. The narrator has us constantly guessing what's going to happen next. For example, she doesn't immediately reveal what mysterious illness or infliction is causing their back pain, the ultimate fate of her wicked dad, and what happened with the Italian mafia. Suspense is constantly being built. You're constantly on edge. This could easily qualify as a thriller and/or a drama. Just when you think that the narrator has it all figured out and that their life is on an upward trajectory, tragedy strikes or they're hit with another curve ball.
Another thing that really stands out is that, from a literary standpoint, the major characters are unforgettable. Stephanie is a brilliant main protagonist, not because she's a white knight hero, but because of how flawed and vulnerable she is. At the same time, Stephanie is infinitely sympathetic and compelling. Her life story is incredibly tragic and, yet, inspirational. There are so many times when Stephanie could've called it quits and tapped out. There are so many times when Stephanie could've been killed. However, like an Energizer bunny or Rocky, she just kept on going and going and going. Her innocence and childhood were quite literally robbed from her by people she loved and trusted. There is so much darkness and evil surrounding her, it is incredible she didn't grow up to be a serial-killer and instead grew up to be a phenomenal writer and author!
In this book, Stephanie is constantly trying to survive and better her life. And, beside letting a cocaine addiction get out of control, seems to be doing her best given the circumstances. She's not one of those victims who keeps going back to be victimized, it seems like it follows her no matter how hard she tries to escape. And she does try to escape multiple times. What happens when she tries? She goes to a detention center “shelter” where someone immediately gets his throat slit in front of her and she fears for her life. She loses her bag with all the meds she's dependent on. She gets kidnapped. A disgruntled client basically blows up her one working vehicle with her inside it. She gets her path crossed with the Italian mafia because of the stupidity of her guy friend—the one dude you think might be her saving grace for the longest time. She gets drugged into a paralytic state by unscrupulous people including her own sister. She even gets poisoned, including by her eventual husband. Stephanie endured more in her first 13 years than most people do in a lifetime. By the age of 21, she basically has experience comparable to Wolverine from X-Men or Officer Frederick Douglass Reynolds from Black, White and Gray All Over.
One of the other memorable characters or figures in the book is Stephanie's dad, Jean, the main antagonist and villain of the book. And, no, it's not just what you think. It's WORSE. HE is worse. If this were a work of fiction, Jean would be the perfect villain. Not only is he given a backstory setting up the roots of his wickedness, but we fully get to see how vile, wicked, and corruptible his actions and behavior are. He is borderline demonic, yet somehow believably human. There are times that you, for some reason, come to think he might redeem himself somehow or have a change of heart. This is despite all you've read about him. He even manipulates and fools the reader! You vicariously feel his filthy hands to your throat and his fist to you face, and you just can't help but want to fight back too!
Similarly, Leanne (Stephanie's older sister) is despicable and diabolical. Yet, there is a scary degree to which we sympathize with and understand her. She felt shafted by having to take care of a new sister who replaced her as the center of the family's attention and forced her to move to the cold, dark basement. There is also a time when she develops severe health problems. Strangely, as evil and wicked as she was to Stephanie, you can't help but feel a little bit for Leanne. After all, their father clearly wrecks everything and everyone he touches, and Leanne is no exception. At the same time, what Leanne pulled off by pimping out her little sister to endure severe sexual abuse later on is absolutely disgusting and unforgivable. There is even an implication that Leanne didn't care if the abusers permanently maimed or even killed Stephanie. The calmness, poise, and fake shows of sisterly affection that lead up to this are horrifying.
Another person to note here is Stephanie's mother, who constantly yet unsuccessfully tries to defend and protect her from the wrath of her dad. Her mother just simply lacked the ability to do what this book advocates: to know when to run. There are so many times in this book when it would have been better for her to divorce him and run away. What's kind of incredible is that despite the fact that Stephanie should blame her mom for her weakness, her mom is still the one person she seems to unconditionally love. And there is a bit of a redemption arc for her mom, who slips Stephanie money while she's on the run, and also supports her new business. Yes, that's right, after all of that crap she went through, Stephanie actually started her own business!
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