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The life of a smart young girl who lives with an emotionally shut-down Vietnam Vet/heroin addict who may or may not be her father is certainly raw, compelling fictional stuff. Unfortunately, Joanna Rose's overly long debut is little more than an outpouring of "he said she said" anecdote. It suffers from an utter lack of distance, commentary or reaction. Reading about the heroine's childhood in early-1970s Denver feels like watching 24 hours of surveillance video at a 7-Eleven, with the only action being a teenager boosting a copy of Hustler and a frozen burrito.
Sarajean is the narrator we follow from a "free preschool" to the pot-addled age of 16. Most of the book is spent chronicling her mundane adolescent adventures with her friend Lalena, herself the fruit of a drugged-out hippie tryst. They hang out in a thrift shop, a tea house and a bead store, and watch wide-eyed as their authority figures behave like impulsive teens. All the while they wonder about boys, tampons, how to shoplift cigarettes and pinch their parents' pot stashes. Sarajean's junkie mother disappeared long ago; much of the book's tension derives from the few clues to her fate that the girl happens upon, overheard conversations that shed light on her mother's character and whereabouts.
The metaphorical orphans of Kerouac and Kesey make for interesting subject matter, and Rose squarely captures the feelings of a child rolling with a bizarre upbringing, only realizing its strangeness when others inform her of another reality. Sadly, the narrator never deigns to comment on -- much less employ metaphors or analogies to illuminate -- her condition. The ostensibly intelligent, bookish Sarajean simmers in free-floating anger throughout; the only change we witness is her age. One desperately wants to ask her, "What the hell do you think of all this?" Sadly, Little Miss Strange is too shellshocked to reveal her secrets. We're left with a documentary-like flat slice of an interesting life instead of a multidimensional work of fiction. -- Salon