Book Review – Staring Down the Dragon

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

And 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.

This 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.

For 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.

At 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.

The 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.

Novels 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
captures the essence of high school experience.

Like 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 normal again.

An 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. Buckingham
Sydney Press, 207 pgs.