Synopsis: When it comes to bad days, Roxanne Brown has had more than most. Her mom’s a drunk. Her dad’s not around. And the haircut she got before her first day of high school was a total disaster. Soon, a seemingly serendipitous encounter gives her a reason to celebrate. He’s cute and confident and best of all, he likes her — like, really likes her. But Roxanne has been duped. And as she plummets down the rabbit hole, crumbs of herself are left in all the dark places we would rather not see. Will Roxanne make it out? Or has she lost too much of herself to survive?
In this chilling debut novel inspired by true events, award-winning journalist Tamara Cherry unzips the world of domestic sex trafficking with enchantment, empowerment and the existential mind of a teenaged girl. This raw, page-turning crash course on human trafficking presents readers with a startling reality: Roxanne Brown really could be the girl next door.
Thank you so much to Tamara for reaching out to me about reviewing her very first novel, and a huge congrats to her for not only just writing a novel, but writing such an important and necessary one. The book starts with a content warning, and I want to start my review with the same thing: All the Bumpy Pebbles, as well as this review, feature discussions of sexual violence, rape, exploitation, abuse, and anti-Black racism. It’s a difficult read, but one that I found very eye opening and relevant. While it is fiction, an important note is that it is inspired by true stories of survivors of sex trafficking, and Tamara is a journalist who has been working in this field for many years. This book is a culmination of her experience and knowledge in this area, and provides a much-needed look into how lack of support for various communities contributes to the perpetuation of abuse and suffering in Canada.
The book is written from the perspective of 15 year old Roxanne, who’s day to day life consists of dealing with her mom, who has an alcohol addiction, taking care of her younger brother, navigating the men in her mother’s life, and starting high-school. So, not the most stable or nurturing. But then Roxanne meets Paul and everything changes. Someone cares about her, listens to her, loves her. And immediately as the reader you know where it’s going (because this book isn’t a happy book). You see the manipulation in Paul’s behaviour and in what he says, and unfortunately you’re right about it. He essentially kidnaps Roxanne, and the book then details her life throughout her abduction, and what she is forced to do to survive.
Like I said before, it’s not an easy read. In some ways it reminded me of Go Ask Alice, which deals with similar heavy topics. The book is pretty graphic, in that it details pretty explicitly what happens to Roxanne throughout the year that she is in the sex trafficking world, and doesn’t hold back. Roxanne’s relationship with Paul is a striking aspect of the book. As the reader we see them in black and white, with Paul being the abuser and Roxanne being the victim. But in the book Roxanne ‘loves’ Paul, tries to make him proud, and is territorial of him when Paul abducts other girls. This makes sense when you think about – in order to protect herself, Roxanne has to convince herself that they are in love, that this is all for their future together, because the other option is unthinkable. It creates this tension between her and the reader, and is an interesting dynamic throughout most of the book. When she finally breaks from this line of thinking, you really cheer her on, and it really makes you celebrate when she escapes from that environment.
I’ve been learning something about all those bumpy pebbles. You don’t chew them up and spit them out. You step and them with bare feet and they stick to your skin. Then you step on more and more until the old bumpy pebbles are swallowed up and you carry them around with you… until one day you’re full and there’s no more room for bumpy pebbles.All the Bumpy Pebbles, Tamara Cherry
Once Roxanne is home, I was really impressed with Tamara’s choice to not make it a perfect ending, which of course is indicative of real life. Once she was back with her family, things didn’t magically get better – Roxanne still had to deal with her family, but in addition to that she had to cope with the trauma of what occurred relatively alone. She talks about how she had to cancel her cellphone because she couldn’t pay for it anymore, and how the support that she has isn’t perfect. But it also presents her as an incredibly strong young woman, who is working through her trauma head on. I think the ending was the perfect mix of hope for Roxanne and her future, and despair that the system isn’t more equipped or concerned about taking care of survivors.
I feel like one of the strongest parts of the book is the afterword, where Tamara addresses the novel, it’s creation, and various aspects of it. One of the questions that I had throughout the book is why Black men were basically profiled as pimps/traffickers, and White men seemed to be exempt. In fact, at one point I even considered emailing her to ask her about it – it seemed, well, racist? But the afterward completely cleared this up for me. Tamara discusses how a large number of those involved in sex trafficking in Canada are part of the North Preston’s Finest gang, which originates from a neighbourhood in Nova Scotia with the highest concentration of Black Canadians in the country – that’s why the novel’s main antagonist, Paul, is Black. Tamara straight up says that she struggled with whether or not to make Paul/Jamal a Black man, and I really appreciated how she thought out the decision and walked readers through it. Similarly, the “all Black guys are pimps” line that is fed to Roxanne throughout the book is a real life rule told to those who are abducted into sex trafficking, so that they won’t speak to any other men. So while this phrase is undoubtedly racist, it isn’t a reflection of Tamara’s view, but rather a reflection of the world that we live in today and how anti-Black racism is perpetuated within the sex trafficking world, and the world in general.
I also loved this while Tamara obviously wanted this book to raise awareness about sex trafficking, it is also a call to action to prevent people from entering the sex trade as traffickers, which constitutes providing support to communities like North Preston, and addressing the systemic racism that is present in our country. She notes how North Preston doesn’t have it’s own high school, thus exposing it’s resident’s to anti-Black racism in school, and how it’s residents have have experienced trauma and oppression first hand. She doesn’t use this to excuse the acts of Paul/Jamal, but instead uses this background as a call to learn, prevent and do better by these communities. To help ensure that people don’t turn to the drug and sex trafficking trade, we need to invest in the community and ensure that they have alternate means to make ends meet, to make a living.
She ends the book with this quote, which I really want to type out in it’s entirety. It is so powerful, and I think that everyone needs to read it:
“When it comes to human trafficking, we have, by and large, been treating the symptoms rather than the cause. If we want to get serious about helping victims and survivors of this horrific crime, we need to talk about inequality, racism, childhood trauma, how to adequately care for kids in group homes, what is driving habitual runaways to keep running away – the list goes on and on. And when we can’t predict and prevent, then we must adequately, often for several years, support the survivors after the trauma has occurred, recognizing the lasting horrors many of them endure”.
Canadians in general tend to turn a blind eye to what is happening in our country – it’s not as bad as the US or other places! But we have such a long way to go towards equality (and even further to go for equity) that sometimes it can hard to imagine how we can improve. But Tamara’s words lay out explicitly some areas where we can focus on doing better, and I am so glad that she used her platform to do so.
I will say that one thing I wish she had mentioned in the afterword was that sex work is not always a part of sex trafficking. Many people turn to sex work out of necessity or some do it by choice, many find it empowering, and in way is everyone person who partakes in sex work a victim. So I would have liked if she had mentioned that, because I do feel as though that point can be lost in a book where a girl is forced to partake in sex work.
This book is a call to action not only regarding sex trafficking in Canada, but also in our struggle towards supporting marginalized communities in Canada. It is an eye opening read regarding this topic, and if you feel like you are in a place where you can read this book, I highly suggest it. Thank you so much Tamara for trusting me with reviewing the book, and I look forward to seeing where your writing career goes in the future.
Today is All the Bumpy Pebbles’ publishing day, so be sure to support it! You can get it at this link, or wherever e-books are normally available.
Have a great day ducks, and I will see you soon!
PS – just had a great convo with Tamara, and she responded to my point about addressing sex work and it’s multitudes. She explained that in her experience it can cause further trauma to sex trafficking survivors as any implication of sex work being voluntary, for them, can feel like we are minimizing their trauma. Also, she pointed out that this book really was to bring attention to sex trafficking and not sex work, which is completely fair. If you’re looking for a book that delves into sex work and it’s nuances, I would suggest Rock, Paper, Sex!