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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff (b. 1937)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of plot: The 1990s

Locale: An unnamed city

Principal characters

LaVaughn, an ambitious fifteen-year-old

Jody, her neighbor and crush

Myrtle, her best friend

Annie, her childhood friend

The...

(The entire section contains 898 words.)

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Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff (b. 1937)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of plot: The 1990s

Locale: An unnamed city

Principal characters

LaVaughn, an ambitious fifteen-year-old

Jody, her neighbor and crush

Myrtle, her best friend

Annie, her childhood friend

The Story

True Believer (2001), written by award-winning author Virginia Euwer Wolff, is the second book in the Make Lemonade trilogy. Make Lemonade, the first book of the series, was published in 1993, and This Full House, the third book, was published in 2009. In Make Lemonade, fourteen-year-old LaVaughn babysits for Jolly—a seventeen-year-old mother of two. Although Jolly and her children, Jeremy and Jilly, make a brief appearance in True Believer, the plot can be understood without having read the first book.Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

When True Believer begins, LaVaughn is fifteen years old. She lives in a poor area in an unnamed city with her mother—her father was killed when she was a child. Like many of her friends, LaVaughn longs to escape her violent neighborhood, where everyone grapples with difficult circumstances and obstacles in different ways. LaVaughn's best friends, Myrtle and Annie, take a virginity pledge and join a religious club called Cross Your Legs for Jesus. Although LaVaughn thinks the club is strange, she tries to maintain her friendships with the girls despite the growing rift the club creates between them.

The novel's inciting incident comes when a boy named Jody moves into LaVaughn's apartment building. Jody and his mother used to live in the building when LaVaughn was a small child. LaVaughn finds Jody, who is also fifteen years old, attractive. She develops a crush on him and tries various tactics to get him to notice her. Jody—a competitive swimmer and lifeguard—invites her to the pool to be his practice drowning victim and she revels in his touch. LaVaughn asks Jody to the school dance, but afterward, when she suggests they kiss, he gives her an awkward peck and runs away. Throughout the story, LaVaughn tries to balance her growing obsession with Jody and schoolwork. She is determined to go to college, and along with other ambitious students, she attends a challenging grammar class.

LaVaughn also takes a biology class—and the vocabulary of the class infiltrates the book's narrative. Her lab partner, Patrick, develops a crush on her but she rebuffs him because she likes Jody. The biology class and her work at a children's hospital after school inspire her to become a nurse. As her dreams begin to fall into place, there are problems at home. LaVaughn's mother begins to date a man named Lester, and he tries to convince them to move out of the city. After several months, when Lester asks to borrow money from LaVaughn's college savings account, her mother kicks him out of the house. LaVaughn continues to feud with Myrtle and Annie—they tell her they can no longer associate with her because she is not a member of their club. Furthermore, her saga with Jody comes to a head when she walks in on him kissing another boy.

LaVaughn is devastated when she finds out Jody is gay and her grades begin to slip. The protagonist, however, embarks on a spiritual journey of acceptance and finds solace and understanding in new friends and new goals for herself. The novel ends with LaVaughn's sixteenth birthday party, where everyone, including Jody, is present.

Critical Evaluation

True Believer won the 2001 National Book Award for young people's literature. The novel was widely praised for its blank verse and Wolff's sensitive rendering of LaVaughn's longing for a better life.

Wolff, who began the Make Lemonade trilogy in the early 1990s, never reveals LaVaughn's race nor the city in which she lives. The author has noted in interviews that she deliberately left the interpretation of race to the reader. With this, Wolff wanted to encourage her readers to envision LaVaughn as themselves. Furthermore, Wolff's trilogy remains popular for the way it combines poetic and scientific imagery—often water and fish—with images drawn from everyday life, such as notebooks, packages of instant food, and city buses. In an early scene, Wolff writes:

I kept looking down at my book

and I felt flustered and fidgety,

wanting in all the diploid cells of me,

in all my chromatin threads

to go to that dance.

The novel's title, True Believer, refers to a belief in possibility. Over the course of the book, LaVaughn learns to believe in herself but also in the goodness of others. True Believer follows the structure of a coming-of-age novel. LaVaughn realizes that she is no longer a child and that certain things in her life, including her body, her friendships with Myrtle and Annie, and her relationships with boys, are different from what they once were. At first, she is afraid of change, but over time she learns to accept and embrace it. In a more traditional telling, LaVaughn's story might end with her going to college or moving away. Wolff, however, subverts this arc. LaVaughn does not reach a new stasis as much as she achieves a renewed courage in her dreams.

Further Reading

  • Review of True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Kirkus, 1 Feb. 2001, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/virginia-euwer-wolff/true-believer. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
  • Review of True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Publishers Weekly, 1 Feb. 2001, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-689-82827-0. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
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