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Livvie Owen Lived Here by Sarah Dooley
labandbooks
proseandkahn
 
240 p. Feiwel and Friends, August, 2010.

This is the first-person narrative of fourteen-year-old Olivia "Livvie" Owen. She has autism and suffers from frequent outbursts when sounds or sights or feelings overwhelm her. The reader infers, through her rather emotionally disconnected narrative, that this has caused the frequent eviction of her family from a series of increasingly decrepit rentals. Livvie longs for the comfort of the Sun House and connects the closing of the factory, where both of her parents worked with having to vacate the Sun House. 

She attends a special ed class at the high school, which is relegated to a wing that is isolated from the rest of the student body and taught by a series of subs, none of whom seem to have the skill set needed to deal with Livvie and her classmates. That is, until Mrs. Rhodes comes. Even though her only training seems to come via growing up with an older brother who has autism, she connects with Livvie and finds a way into her heart. 

There's some question about the level of Livvie's functioning. There seems to be little or no actual instruction in her class and she seems to be unable to read. Her inability to read a sign on the Sun House leads to assumptions on her part and leaves the reader in a state of suspense. She is a creature of habit, variations of routine can trigger stimming behavior. She often refers to herself in the third person and she insists that she hears the factory whistle. In fact, she hears it late one night and sets out by herself, in the rain to check the factory out, leading her family to believe that she might have run away. 

Life in the Owen household can't be easy. But her parents are mostly supportive and Livvie treasures her older sister, as much as her disease allows. It is her younger sister, Lanie, who seems to be Livvie's enemy. The two have some of the funniest interactions in the book. The story focuses primarily on the family dynamics. Other than the intolerant landlady, a short-lived "sub," the ineffective classroom aide and finally Mrs. Rhodes, the community is largely absent.

Portrayal of an autistic child in literature is tricky, especially in a first-person narrative. The narrator can't be too introspective or empathetic and yet, can't be so flat or stuck that the reader loses interest or patience. Add to that the fact that it goes up against some truly first rate novels featuring an Autistic main character - London Eye Mystery, Marcello in the Real World, Emma Jean Lazarus, Mockingbird, to name a few. Quite a daunting task for a debut novelist. Dooley almost gets it right. Many of the dynamics were spot on. My trouble with the story stemmed from having difficulty swallowing Livvie's awful educational setting and the family's total lack of medical or social service support. Really, her special ed setting was almost institutional, and surely a crime in these post- American with Disabilities Act times. Still, I'm on board for Dooley's sophomore novel, which, according to her web site, is entitled, Body of Water, and due out in October, 2011.