The Plot: Lida, sixteen, has been sent by her father and stepmother to the Alice Marshall School in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Alice Marshall isn’t a school that girls test into; at least, not with school grades and entrance exams. It’s a school that girls are sent to: girls who have done something, a Thing that is more misdemeanor than felony.
Lida is silent about her Thing, both to the reader and to the other girls at Alice Marshall. Quiet, more lonely than shy, she keeps to herself, trying to avoid her cabin mates, especially the volatile Boone. Then, Gia comes to Alice Marshall. There is something about Gia, and all Lida knows is that she wants to be Gia’s friend. To be more than Gia’s friend: to be important to her. No matter what the cost.
The Good: Different story threads are woven through The Girls of No Return. There is Lida and her Thing, the Thing she did to warrant being sent away to an isolated wilderness school. Why is Lida like she is, so shut off from others? What could she have possibly done?
There is the story of love and friendship between teenage girls, with emotions heightened because of their isolation. For Lida, this is doubly true because while at Alice Marshall she is physically isolated from the world, just like the other girls, Lida has always been emotionally isolated. The small world of Alice Marshall ironically offers Lida an opportunity to develop real connections and real friendships. Or are they real? The girls are here for many different reasons; while what Lida needs is friendship, or, rather, to be chosen, to be wanted, to be someone’s “best,” that is not what other girls want or need or offer. Some do offer friendship; others, honesty, no matter how blunt or brutal; and some people’s needs can only be met by using or hurting others.
The Girls of No Return is told with flashbacks, with the Lida now (roughly two years after the events at Alice Marshall) telling the story that happened then. So, the book begins with an “Epilogue,” and that epilogue is sprinkled throughout the book, with the final chapter named “Prologue.” It is the Epilogue to the events that happened at Alice Marshall, and a prologue to the rest of Lida’s life. The Epilogue tells the reader, from the start, that Lida has survived; as the novel continues, and that Epilogue continues, the reader not only begins to discover what happened at Alice Marshall but also that the Lida in the present is healthy, has friends, yet is haunted by what that happened. What is it? The suspense builds as the dynamics between the wounded Lida, edgy Boone and ethereal Gia are gradually revealed.
Lida is a tough person to like. She’s built up a lot of walls, but one gets glimpses of her humor and intelligence. Because Lida is telling the story, not every reader will realize that Lida’s isolation is partly of her own making. A quick disclosure: reading this as an adult, I began with a greater sympathy to Lida’s parents than Lida herself had. Then, when Lida’s “Thing” is shared, I didn’t see how her parents thought that Alice Marshall was the answer. What do I know, though, because in many ways, Alice Marshall was what Lida needed.
The Girls of No Return is a story of forgiveness; of not letting the past control the future; and the decisions and choices we make, both in actions taken and not taken.