Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

by PammyMcB

Chris Crutcher’s novel Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a riveting novel about the pains of growing up both in a dysfunctional home and as an outsider in the teen scene. This touching story is packed full of believable characters and believable situations. It is a novel that often is considered for censorship, but is also a novel that could teach a great deal to young adults. It is a novel that can change the worlds of so many people who may need compassion and a helping hand.

For many young adults, growing up is painful, and compassion is difficult to find. According to Childhelp, an organization dedicated to meet the various needs of abused children, over three million cases of child abuse are reported each year. However, “experts estimate that the actual number of incidents of abuse and neglect is 3 times greater than reported” (Childhelp). This is a larger problem than many would like to admit, but Crutcher has done a great job bringing this issue to the forefront in this novel. Both Sarah Byrnes and Dale Thornton live with the problems, which arise from being raised in an abusive home. Sarah is a prankster who laughs at everything. Dale is a bully that passes on the abusive treatment he has received and learned from his father. They both have built up a wall between themselves and the world. Neither child has an adult they can trust, and they are both fully aware that telling what happens in their homes would only cause more trouble. As we learn more about Sarah’s father, it becomes quite clear why the child would fake a catatonic state.

Though it is hard for many people to understand why a child would rather spend time in a psychiatric hospital than their own home, people who have been in Sarah’s situation know when there is too much physical pain, a person will do almost anything to get away from it. Her situation is just as believable as every other situation in the book. Crutcher’s background as a therapist has served him well in writing this novel. Amazingly, Sarah does not pity herself the way she does the children who have the emotional and mental scarring inside; she does not believe she is like them. It is not until she writes the letter to Eric that she begins to realize that she acts tough and mean to hide her own pain. Sarah is not the only character whose true-to-life dysfunctional family is noticeable. Mark’s family, though not physically abusive, is just as dysfunctional than Sarah’s. Mark’s father pushes him so hard to be the perfect son that he makes bad decisions which leads to his suicide attempt. Though the father feels he is a good Christian man he has forgotten the words of his Messiah, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14). The pressure from Mark’s father has deterred the young man from his Christian responsibility to uphold the rules set down in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, which basically says we should not fornicate. Sure Mark can spin a fine yarn as he stands upon his pulpit preaching about the sins of abortion; however, he does not seem to be able to practice what he preaches. Is this situation believable? Yes, it is common for people to fail to be able to refrain from the sins they preach against. This is seen every day in newspaper headlines across the country.

Another situation that makes the novel believable is the situation with Carver. He goes after Virgil Byrnes and ends up beating him in a questionable bout of self-defense. Many novels give the happy ending to the hero that caught the ‘bad guy,’ but Crutcher does not give the happy ending we are expecting; Carver does receive some jail time. Another unhappy ending component is that Sarah’s mom refuses to save her daughter from ongoing pain and suffering, both physical and emotional. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “Mothers are found to be the neglectful parent in 72% of neglect cases.” All of the other situations in the novel are believable as well. According to Contemporary Authors Online Chris Crutcher has said, “It is a joy to write a tale that is believable, that is real.” Crutcher goes on to state, “Working in the mental health field provides me with some unique perspectives on the human drama – how people get stuck and how they grow” (Contemporary). Crutcher’s novel Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is unique because of this perspective that he feels so fortunate to have.

Although the characters are believable and the novel is unique, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is often considered for censorship. In 2005 a mother in Westmoreland, New York wanted the novel to be pulled from the high school curriculum due to its “graphic language.” Though she took her attempt to the school board the superintendent Toni Kulak stated, “We’re going to continue to use the book because we think it’s valuable to our students” (School, 20). Though the novel does have some strong language and the issues raised in the novel may make people a bit uncomfortable and on edge, the novel is a powerful novel about the hardships many young adults face. This novel can give a teacher of young adults many opportunities for class discussion. For instance, in a school with high pregnancy rates, a sexual education teacher could use the novel as an outlet for class discussion about the effects of unprotected sex and abortion. Similarly, in a school where bullying is an issue, the teacher can use the novel to spark discussion on how Sarah must have felt when she was called “Scarface” by her peers, or how Eric must have felt when people called him “Moby” or “Fatboy.” There are many other topics for potential discussion in the novel. Censoring a novel with so much potential for molding young minds into compassionate minds would be a critical mistake.

Though Crutcher’s novel is marketed as a novel for young adults, the novel is suitable for adults. This novel is packed full of believable situations that many people can relate to. It can be used to teach adults and young adults about the hardships of growing up in an environment that they may not have experienced. It can be a tool for young adults who are experiencing such living environments to realize they need to learn to trust other adults, and not all adults are bad. Furthermore, the book can be used as a valuable tool for every high school classroom. In conclusion, this novel is a powerful novel that can change the world of many adults, both young or old.