Don't be deceived by the innocuous, seemingly innocent, title. Rabbit Ears is neither. It is a tough story, and it's based on a true story which is devastating.
Kaya is only 13 but life has not been kind to her, though almost no one knows what she has and continues to endure. Her sister Beth, 16, watches out for her as best she can but she doesn't understand what motivates Kaya, and their mom continues to want to save Kaya from herself, sending the police out for her, excusing her adopted daughter's attitude, and giving her opportunities to recover from her troubled times. It's an endless cycle of running away to unsafe situations, returning home, trying to stick with the "normal" life, and then abandoning it yet again.
Told in the alternating voices of Kaya and Beth, Rabbit Ears takes readers into the unseemly and dangerous dark side of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, to which Kaya is introduced by another student, Michelle, who rescues Kaya from a beating at school. Though she enjoys the freedom of hanging with street kids, taking pot and avoiding school, Kaya tries to do the right thing, knowing that her sister and mother have her best interests at heart. But, with school feeling more and more impossible, especially after a girl, Diana, whom Kaya obviously knows, starts going to her high school, and home not feeling like the right place for her to be, Kaya goes downtown with Michelle again. This time, though, Michelle trades sex for heroin and Kaya meets a sex trade worker, Sarah, who tells her to go home. But Kaya returns and begins her own descent into heroin use and prostitution.
Though Kaya is gone for weeks, and her mom and sister continue to search for her, there is a trip to Kamloops which rekindles Beth's fascination with magic and reminiscences of her dad's passing. It's those memories that help Beth put together the fragments of Kaya's life that may explain her sister's thinking and feelings.
Just like the toy rabbit in Beth's box-to-box trick–in which it is made to appear in a different box from the one in which it originated–there is much that is mysterious about Kaya's disappearances and reappearances. Her thinking is unpredictable, based on circumstances unknown to her family, even to herself. She knows that home is the better place to be, but it continues to feel wrong to her. No child should ever feel that, especially when the option is to find consolation on the streets at age 13. Like those rabbit ears, barely poking out of the box, Kaya tries to stay put and on her mom and Beth's radars, but sometimes going elsewhere is her only choice.
As I plainly announced in the introduction, Rabbit Ears is a tough read. There are drugs, violent sex, rape, swearing, assault, and painful emotional trauma. Maggie De Vries does not minimize the horror, though she does create a less horrific ending than the one that her sister sadly experienced. Kaya's very existence is so vulnerable, so fragile; it's able to splinter with a single word.
"Diane has shattered a very, very fragile thing. And no claws, needles, or paid-for sex acts are going to piece it back together." (pg. 168)But never deny the fragility of the whole family, finding ways to deal with that shattering, with food, magic, work, therapy, anger. This is Kaya's story but Beth and their mom are taken along, nay, join her in it, as the significant supporting cast that they are. Rabbit Ears is the gnawing heartache that no child or family should ever endure, but Maggie De Vries tells it as it needs to be told and she tells it very well.