These Are Not the Words

Written by Amanda West Lewis
Review by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Twelve-year-old Miranda Billie Taylor, known as Missy, lives in Manhattan’s East Village in 1963 with her photojournalist and jazz-drumming father and aspiring artist mother. Her best friend, whose mother is divorced (a rarity in those days), lives downstairs. It’s a comfortable life with family and friends and a progressive private school until her father starts waking her in the middle of the night to go to jazz clubs with him (fun but tiring) and rages suddenly or disappears for days at a time (scary). After a stressful trip to a work conference in Florida, he turns up mysteriously unemployed, and shortly afterward two men with guns break into the apartment, demanding payment for the heroin they sold him. Missy and her mother flee home and friends for a new bare-bones existence eight blocks away, hiding from both her father and the men to whom he owes money—until Missy tracks him down and puts them all in danger.

Narrated in first person via both prose and poetry, the novel evokes a time, place, and way of life while maintaining a fast-moving undercurrent of tension and menace. Readers feel Missy’s insecurity—her need to walk on eggshells to avoid setting off her volatile father—as well as her love for him and admiration for his artistic gifts.  In some ways she’s an innocent, with her mother and a close family friend trying to shield her from the extent of her father’s mental illness, but she is more aware and resilient than they believe. This resilience and resourcefulness, expressed through her poetry as well as her initiatives to earn her own money and reconnect with her old friend, make her a character to remember and admire.