Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The Torn Skirt recounts the metamorphosis of sixteen- year-old Sara Shaw from a fairly typical high school student who hangs out with the “burnout boys” to a runaway teen accused of attempted murder. Sara’s transformation takes a dizzying twelve days, during which she starts to frequent and eventually feel at home on the mean streets of Victoria, British Columbia. Narrated by Sara herself, the novel immerses the reader in her chaotic, contradictory, and passionate world, sustaining a frenetic pace throughout. The only relief offered from this adolescent point of view is the inclusion of a nine-page police report, which gives a factual framework to the otherwise confusing events Sara describes while also offering an ironic counterpoint to the first-person narrative.
The narrator, Sara Shaw, was raised by her hippie parents in the Pleasure Family, a “free sex” commune. Her father, Seamus, cooked for the group and provided some stability for Sara, while her mother participated actively in the Family’s sordid sex scene and bestowed all of her sizeable inheritance upon its leader. When Sara was eight, she and her father left the Family, sneaking out in the middle of the night by stealing the leader’s van. Seamus, still hiding from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for dodging the draft, escaped with Sara to Canada, where he found a job in a health food restaurant in Victoria and Sara, as she describes herself, was “a good girl. I was pretty, I smiled, I fit in fine.” At sixteen, however, Sara, grown tall with messy red hair and dressed in long johns and her father’s old flannel shirts, stopped smiling and her life began to unravel.
Sara’s downward spiral begins when she hears that the “burnout boys,” her only friends at school, gang- raped one of their classmates, Heather Hale, with a garden hose. When Sara tries to tell Heather, a “tough stoner girl” that she is sorry, Heather shrugs her shoulders, claiming that “It was just sex.” Sara’s realization that her friends are capable of such casual cruelty and that she is unable to help Heather drastically alters her view of the world. “That garden hose thing was really getting to me. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to go back to school. What I wanted to do was walk around where there was no one my age. No burnouts, no preppies, no jocks, no bops, no nature kids, none of those stupid divisions.”
Following this incident, Sara heads for Victoria’s “Red Zone,” a district of seedy bars, prostitutes, runaways, and junkies. There, in a sleazy Chinese diner, she first glimpses Justine, the wearer of the torn skirt of the title. Justine was “frail and looked a bit unhealthy, but she seemed unaware of this. She walked like she was a star in certain select circles, so it didn’t matter what anyone outside those circles thought of her. She walked fast and straight.” Sara immediately feels a connection with this girl, and her quest to meet and befriend Justine drives her to explore the darkest reaches of Victoria and fuels her descent into this netherworld. Simultaneously, Seamus decides to abandon Victoria and his daughter’s increasingly troubled adolescence to pursue a less complicated, more isolated life in the forest, leaving Sara completely alone in the world.
As Sara wanders the Red Zone in search of Justine, she becomes increasingly daring. She snorts cocaine with China, a teenage prostitute, and helps her to rob Dirk Wallace, a middle-aged man come to find a prostitute. Wallace’s threat of revenge frightens Sara into briefly leaving the streets and returning to school, but after pulling a knife on the school bully during a pep rally she decides to drop out and never return. At this point she feels truly lost: “I didn’t know what to do. It probably doesn’t seem like much of a problem to you but I really felt like I had nowhere to go.”
After being found passed out on the floor of a restaurant restroom, Sara is placed at White Oaks, a home for runaway girls. At White Oaks she is further drawn into...
(The entire section is 1649 words.)
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