Chinese Handcuffs

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When Preston Hemingway commits suicide, his brother Dillon is left holding the pieces. While Dillon struggles, he discovers his friend Stacy is carrying a secret of her own. And so is Jennifer. The three of them strive to make sense of death, life, abuse, and growing up in a modern and uncaring world.

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Chines Handcuffs is a poorly written and attempts to deal with too many issues in the course of one novel.

Dillon Hemingway is supposed to be a triathlete, working his way through his emotional troubles through the physically demanding training regimen required of an Ironman.  Yet, it isn’t until the end of the novel that we really see him take off and run and practice. What we do see, in the beginning is a family falling apart. Two parents who can’t figure out a way to save their oldest son, Preston, from his own destructive behavior. But Preston has the answers, and shoots himself with Dillon looking on.

Jennifer Lawless is a star basketball player molested first by her father, and then her stepfather. The victim of physical abuse herself, Jennifer’s mother can’t leave her current husband. Young Jennifer, the adult  in the family, can’t find a way out.

Stacy, Preston’s girlfriend, is pregnant with his baby. In a refreshingly pro-life moment, Stacy has the baby and with the help of her parents, decides to raise him.

The ending of the book is contrived. And, for being such a messed up kid, Dillon seems to have enough wits about him to save, not only himself, but Jennifer as well. Unfortunately, he can’t save the reader from the haunting memories of the over the top violent descriptions of suicide, child molestation, and gang rape.  Throughout the course of the book the teenagers discover that beauty is a lie, that all things good are merely facades for something sinister, and that the only thing one has in the world “are your responses to it. Responses to your feelings and to what comes in from outside…that’s all responsibility is, responding to the world, owning your responses.” (163).

I can’t recommend this book. If I were a troubled teen – the target for books like these – there isn’t any hope in these pages. And if I were not troubled and looking for answers, I’d have found trouble within the pages and most likely lost a little hope along the way.

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  • Author: Chris Crutcher
  • Publisher: Greenwillow Books (October 5, 2004)
  • Publisher’s Reading Age: Ages 14 and up

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What You Need to Know

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  • Role Models/Authority Figures – The principal at Chief Joseph high school is a dim-wit, in his position only because he was a former coach. He loves authority and seems to be adverse to reason. Jennifer’s mother needs a man around – even if he abuses her and her daughter – and cannot leave a relationship even to save her children. Dillon’s parents are divorced because his mother cannot handle Preston’s behavior. Coach Kathy Sherman is a strong female character who gives advice to “go with whatever works. There’s no precedent, so as long as you agree with whoever else is involved, you can’t be wrong.” (165), “going to the so-called authorities isn’t always the smart thing to do.” (254)
  • Violence – A graphic and disturbing depiction of a young Preston and Dillon killing a cat (pg 15-16), description of Jennifer’s father coming into her room and molesting her (pg 54), description of a gang rape (83), description of the tension just before and then the visual of Preston shooting himself (85), description of Jennifer’s stepfather molesting her (106), Stepfather takes a picture of a puppy chained to a car, with boot on his head nearly under a car tire to threaten Jen to stay quiet about abuse (109), description of abuse Jennifer’s stepfather went through at the hands of his mother, then his revenge “Good old mom was long gone. Bad car accident. No brakes. How sad.” (259-260)
  • Sexual Content – The molestation scenes turn pornographic when young Jennifer (in a flashback) explains that “it feels good – kind of – in a strange sort of way, but it also feels icky”, in the memory of her relationship with the counselor who helps her understand “that what had happened with her father was not her fault, that because his late-night visits sometimes felt a little bit good, she was not bad.” (198), Dillon recounts “its difficult for me to fathom why they tell you can have only one member of the opposite sex in your life at one time…I don’t even know who “they” is, so its hard for me to know if that’s reliable information.” (22) he [Principal Caldwell] catches me in the hall or the lunchroom or someplace where I’ve just fallen in lust with some girl to hold me over…” (113), “there’s no such thing as more than friends…there is when you’re as horny as I am.” (158)
  • Language – The teenagers in the novel are “hard” and “tough” and thus swear throughout.
  • Consumerism – Mention of Nike Airs, movie The Color Purple, Dr. Seuss, Donahue, Oprah
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Warlock gang “pulled out a Baggie of coke and string out a few lines onto the table…laying one end of his straw near his nose and approaching the coke” (190), “Jack lined up the coke, and both men snorted quickly” (191)
  • Religion – “It isn’t hard to be perfect, she thought, when it kept your mind away from such horror.” (111)
  • Other – Feminism in Coach Kathy Sherman. “I was told how women were supposed to be – but I could never pull it off because it wasn’t how I was.” (163), “the so-called American Dream isn’t for everyone. It’s particularly not for a lot of women. We get to be dreamed about, but we don’t often get to do the dreaming. We become…that make up that dream for men. At its worst it turns into what happened in Jen’s family.” (289)
  • Awards – Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, ALA Best Books for Young Readers, ALA Best of the Best Books for Young Readers