Book Review – Staring Down the Dragon
now a confession from the reviewer: My mom died from lung cancer when I
was only nine years old. She led a healthy life, no smoking, no drinking;
but at the age of forty-seven there she was, rationing out Clark bars on
Halloween, from a hospital bed we had set up in our living room.
is how it happened. One day my mom sneezed and fell down a flight of
stairs. A doctor gave her an X-Ray, and discovered a tumor – like a
teakettle she left boiling too long on the stove – sitting on her lung.
A year later she was gone.
some people, cancer is not a choice, but a way of life. For Rell De-Mello,
the feisty Kailua High School sophomore in Dorothea Buckingham’s Staring
Down the Dragon, it’s an end-less supply of embarrassing moments.
A glowing example of “successful” cancer treatment, Rell spends what
should be her first day back at school, hiding out in McDonalds.
Concealing her bald head under a wig, Rell has lost her eyelashes, her
eyebrows, and as far as she’s concerned, her future dating prospects.
Even Rell’s reliable 34 B chest has taken a vacation after chemotherapy
for Hodgkin’s’ Disease.
school, people treat her like a star. She walks into a standing ovation in
English class, gets special treatment from teachers, and Wanda Yamanaka
wants her to write an inspirational piece for the school paper on “what
it was like to almost die.” But Rell knows what people really want to
hear: “Once upon a time Estrella DeMello had cancer, and she lived
happily ever after”.
Like most girls in Hawaii, Rell dreams of handsome surfers and
limbo parties with “six-foot-three lifeguards pouring pina coladas down
her throat”. But sun-screen, therapy sessions, blood tests, and endless
precautions – like making sure her dog doesn’t make her sick –
won’t allow her to forget that she’s different. Even her best friend
Emi calls her the “Cancer Queen” when her disease threatens to
overwhelm their friendship.
only person Rell feels safe with is LB, her old roomie from Stanhope
Hospital. But LB’s leukemia may make that Grand Canyon trip they’ve
been planning a thing of the past. It’s only when Rell meets Nate Lee, a
handsome junior with a secret of his own, that Rell decides to let
somebody in. With love and understanding, Nate shows her that cancer
doesn’t have to take over her life.
about illness usually have their work cut out for them, and as great as
these books may be, their subject matter alone gives you the awkward
feeling of waiting for test results. But Dragon is first and foremost
about being a teenager, and Buckingham
the best teen novels, Staring Down the Dragon is great because it’s
honest. Rell doesn’t teach us to live every moment as if it’s our
last. She acts like the rest of us: scared, uncertain, and looking for
answers. Cancer survivors don’t feel quite like anybody else, and
Dorothea Buckingham lends Rell an authentic voice by letting us see just
how difficult it is for someone recovering from cancer to begin to feel
uplifting story about overcoming fear, and accepting change, Staring Down
the Dragon is really about living after cancer – maybe the hardest
journey of all.
Staring Down the Dragon by Dorothea N.