Noelle, the narrator of Susane Colasant’s YA novel Keep Holding On, is just trying to make it through high school so that she can get the hell out of Dodge. (Dodge isn’t actually the name of the town where she lives; Noelle actually calls it “Middle of Nowhere, USA.” ) Every day Noelle wishes she could “be transported to another school in an alternate universe where required learning doesn’t have to involve this traumatic test of survival skills.” Noelle doesn’t stand out, not really, but nevertheless she’s an outsider. Mostly she’s a target because she’s poor; her lunch and clothes are often cause for ridicule. There’s also some stuff following her from her middle school days – a misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion and hangs over her like a dark cloud. The biggest problem in Noelle’s life, besides the jerks at her school who make her life miserable, is her mother.
This one time last year, she came home really late and woke me up when she slammed the front door. Then she whipped my door open. I could see her glaring at me, the light from the hall illuminating the hate in her eyes. She didn’t say anything. She just slammed my door.
Noelle’s mom isn’t abusive per se, but she is neglectful. Noelle can’t remember a time when her mother really looked at her, but it’s certainly been since her stepfather, her mom’s second husband, died of cancer. This was clearly a traumatic event for mother and daughter and yet it’s hard to feel any empathy for Noelle’s mom; she’s just awful. “There are plenty of days,” Noelle observes,” when mother says less than ten words to me.” Noelle’s biological father isn’t in the picture at all. Then there’s Matt, the boy Noelle likes who seems to like her back at least enough to make out with her – although the fact that they make out is top-secret. Even though you can see the reason for Matt’s need for secrecy a mile away, it still a believable situation for Noelle. Keep Holding On treads familiar teen ground, but the book separates itself from the pack in part because Noelle is immensely sympathetic. She wants, more than anything, to fit in, but what she eventually figures out is that fitting in isn’t nearly as important as finding your own place to belong.