Trowbridge Road

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Trowbridge Road Book Poster Image
Heavy family tale of AIDS, mental illness, abuse in 1983.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

In her less troubled days, June's mom was a renowned cellist, and now practices Bach obsessively, so there's a lot of detailed information about various Bach compositions. June and Ziggy bond over their fondness for big words like "diaphanous" and "exquisite." Set in 1983 as the AIDS epidemic was just beginning, with fear and ignorance predominating, Trowbridge Road shows its impact on one neighborhood and on those whose loved ones fell victim to the disease. It also presents a terrifyingly vivid picture of the day-to-day reality of the emotional contortions of kids trying to cope with mentally ill parents as they try to survive and normalize the experience. An afterword offers information about mental health help resources.

Positive Messages

As Nana Jean says, "We need to celebrate being together on this special day. Make some good memories before things get hard again," and at some level that's as upbeat as things get in the "real world," though friendship and kindness can be life-saving and life-changing.

Positive Role Models

Ziggy's grandmother, Nana Jean, is the glue holding together her fractured family and its emotionally damaged members, including herself. June longs from afar for the love she sees Nana Jean giving her grandson, and it's the beginning of hope when it's extended to her. June's late father loved her dearly, tried to shield her from her mom's dysfunction as long as he could, and his surviving brother is doing his best to help. Partly as a result of their destructive family situations, Ziggy and June are quirky kids who spend as much time as possible in their own imaginations, and find new worlds in sharing imaginative adventures together.

Violence

Suffering from lifelong mental illness, June's mother neglects and abuses her, leaving her to fend for herself and depend on a kind uncle for food, forcing her into all-night house-cleaning sessions, making her scrub herself in scalding, bleach-adulterated baths that leave her scarred, all due to the mom's obsession with germs and dirt in the wake of her husband's death from AIDS. A woman whose father beat her mom is now being beaten by her drunken boyfriend and neglecting her son. Both June and Ziggy are victimized by bullying neighborhood kids. She retaliates by threatening to infect them with AIDS (which she does not have).

Sex

As a child, June sees her father kissing another man, which she describes as the first romantic kiss she's ever seen, as her parents love each other, but not that way. An adult character says she wished her childhood friend would have married her, but as he was gay, it didn't go that way.

Language

Bullying kids call Ziggy a "fairy" because of his long hair and Return of the Jedi T-shirt.

Consumerism

Occasional mention of contemporary brands (like Chevy) and media (Return of the Jedi). Coca-Cola is the base for an extremely sugary pick-me-up known as Breakfast of Champions.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters smoke and drink alcohol; a woman has a boyfriend (not directly seen in the story) who beats her up when he's drunk, which is, as her mom points out, all the time. She says, "If you give a person enough wine and turn off enough lights, everything gets better. Just close your eyes and imagine whoever you want to imagine."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Marcella Pixley's Trowbridge Road was on the long list for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Set in a quiet Boston suburb in 1983, it's the story of two ostracized, bullied kids, about 12 to 13 years old, who become friends and flee their fractured lives by carving out their own imaginative retreats. They're both victims of multigenerational family dysfunction, including alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. A beloved dad is gay and ultimately dies of AIDS. A grandmother and uncle with troubles of their own provide love and stability amid chaos and neglect. Two men kiss lovingly. The writing is lyrically beautiful, even when describing horrific experiences, which intensifies the trauma. Adult characters smoke and drink, and are beaten by drunken boyfriends/husbands in the background. There's a lot of historically accurate ignorance about AIDS (the story is set at the beginning of the epidemic) and mental illness. The young narrator/protagonist is constantly trying to normalize and cope with her abusive treatment from her mentally ill mother -- for example, being forced to scrub her skin raw in bleach-saturated scalding baths out of fear of germs, to the point where her whole body is scarred. An afterword offers information about mental health help resources. 

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What's the story?

It's the summer of 1983 on TROWBRIDGE ROAD in a quiet Massachusetts town. Ziggy's mom is dropping him off at her mom's house so she can go deal with her life (really, she just wants to be with her drunken boyfriend who beats her). Ziggy -- who's 12 or 13, small and slender with long red hair and a green Return of the Jedi T-shirt -- is traumatized, angry, and shut down. But Nana Jean is patient, kind, and loving with him, and soon he and his pet ferret, Matthew, are feeling a bit more safe. Watching it all with longing is June Jordan, better known as June Bug, who's spending the days high up in a tree in Nana Jean's backyard, because it's a whole lot better than her house, where her once great cellist mom is holed up in her room, practicing Bach obsessively but somehow never bathing herself, eating, or feeding her daughter. She's been obsessed with dirt and germs ever since her husband, June's beloved dad, died of AIDS, about which not much is known in 1983. The kids connect over their fondness for big words and imaginative adventures, becoming birds, dragons, and old-time residents of the area as the mood takes them. Nana Jean and June's kind uncle offer support. But there's still a lot of harrowing trouble ahead, and everybody's more than a bit broken.

Is it any good?

Marcella Pixley delves into mental illness, AIDS, bullying, and family dysfunction in a beautifully written story of people finding glimmers of hope, love, and connection that may yet save them. Not everyone is going to want to give all this darkness real estate in their mind, and not everyone will find enough joy to sustain them in lines like "We need to celebrate being together on this special day. Make some good memories before things get hard again." But Trowbridge Road offers moments of lyrical beauty as two bullied kids of 1983 befriend each other, and triumphant delight, however fleeting, in the deep acceptance of those who love you. As here, when Nana Jean comforts Ziggy, who's just been bullied for his long hair and Return of the Jedi T-shirt:

"'What if I take you downtown today and we get your hair cut and maybe buy you some new clothes?' Nana Jean asked.

"'I don't want new clothes,' said Ziggy. 'And for your information, all magical beings have long hair. If I cut my hair, I won't be able to teleport anymore.'

"'Is that so?' said Nana Jean.

"'Yes,' said Ziggy. 'It is.'

"Nana Jean smiled at him with her eyes so full with love, it almost broke my heart. 'Well, come on then,' she said. 'Let's finish our lunch and try to forget about them. You and me, we are way too fine to let small-minded folks like that bother us.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how mental illness is shown in Trowbridge Road. How does it affect people who struggle with it themselves or in their loved ones? 

  • This story is set in 1983. What do you think would happen differently, or be dealt with differently, today, based on what we've learned in the meantime?

  • What do you know about the AIDS epidemic, and how it affected so many people in the late 20th century? Do you see any parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Book details

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