Streetwise is a raw and raucous novel of a sixteen year old girl’s odyssey of breaking away from all that is safe and ‘right’, and following impulses to their bitter end. Running away, vicious street-life experiences, hooking up with an ex con, robbing a bank and getting ground up and spit out by the prison system. Rachael sees and does it all, is schooled by pain and pays the steepest price. More
Streetwise begins raw, with Rachael ‘Squeeler’ Lonnigan --- a sixteen year old wild girl who has just severed the last shred of a lifeline to her family --- excitedly looking for trouble with her best friend Suz. They’re living the ‘free life’ on the streets of Vancouver, having just hooked up with two pretty crazy dope dealers from back East, Chainsaw Oullette and Razor Fairburn. Panhandling, partying, scamming and doing dope, it seems like a quick jump to being adult without all the work. But ‘the boys’ are rough, and seem to enjoy scaring the hell out of Suz, and soon enough violence and street crazy start to overcome Rachael.
Rachael follows ‘Saw to Toronto, but life quickly gets grim. Winters are harsh, and ‘Saw is losing it, beating her, turning her out in the snow. She meets an older man, Ross, a soft spoken but brutal ex con, just out after ten years in the Kingston Pen. He has a code, and he’s steely, hardened by a brutal life. He rescues Rach from ‘Saw in a dark battle of competing depravities, marking her as his.
Rachael is drawn to the power and sex and money that Ross promises. She slides into crime quickly, if naively, learning the powerful if perverted rules and jargon of prison, being schooled in criminal codes and loyalties. They run dope to New York and make thousands. It seems easy. Only fools live by the rules, the ‘lunch bucketeers’ who don’t know quick and hard ways.
We learn that Ross has a master plan. He assembles a team of ‘cons’. Wayne’s the ‘can man’, the safecracker, and Bobby’s done banks before. Lynette’s spent years in P4W, Kingston Prison for Women. We learn a lot about the violent loyalties of prison, the hate of the ‘screws’, the mutual webs of torture and counter torture. Rachael is given the accelerated course in all aspects of the underworld. She’ll be the young, baby faced innocent shuttling the ‘score’ back across the border, out of the reach of the Yank cops when the ‘job’ is done.
The foursome set it up precisely and practice and drill each other to perfection. The payroll for the Army base is huge, their intelligence is sophisticated and sly. Ross is a master. Rachael, by this time, is so deeply initiated into this alternative universe, that she doesn’t seem to question.
The day arrives, and Lynette and the three men enter the bank. Almost everything seems perfect, until a soldier seems to be taking out a weapon, and Ross reacts, shooting. They get away clean, each to their hideaways or escape routes. Ross finds Rachael near the school, the decoy drop area, where they’re supposed to transfer the money. They can hear police cars in the distance, but what he didn’t count on is that the Military Police have immediately joined in, and almost accidentally stumble on him and Rachael. As he tries to escape, they are trapped, and Ross is gunned down, literally in Rachael’s lap. The robbery is a catastrophe.
Rachael languishes in American jails for a few months, then is transferred to Penetangushene, the psychiatric prison hospital, to be assessed. She’d heard so much about prison life, and now we see her coping with its brutalizing reality, the tough women and violent retaliations for newcomer rebels. She thought she was tough, like Ross. Rachael is the object of many women’s needs, but she runs into a leader of the cell block, Carla, who soon has a hate on for her, and Rachael quickly finds herself in dangerous, even homicidal situations that she simply can’t navigate. Physical and psychological violence, too much time in ‘Stir’, isolation and abandonment start to take a gruesome toll. She’s not sure she’ll stay sane. She breaks, just as her long lost family come to rescue her.
Streetwise is rough and tumble and somewhat fearsome, amazing in its depiction of the underbelly of modern life and the culture of street life, prisons, and youth caught in the undertow of overwhelming forces. Rachael is more than a survivor!