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book review

Billie Livingston is the sort of writer who writes in language that conjures place and character seamlessly.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

I have a word of advice to all the mothers out there who sometimes think that, of all the bad mothers in the world, they are the worst. When you regret having shouted at your toddler, or confiscating your sullen teenager's cellphone, or having that third glass of wine in your 10-year-old's presence, this is what you must do to put your behaviour in perspective. You must read Billie Livingston.

I have now read three of Livingston's works, and yes, I am a fan. She is the sort of writer who rejects pomp, instead dealing out the plain story in language that is undecorated by attempts to be an artiste, and which conjures place and character seamlessly. And she makes Dickens look like Little Mary Sunshine.

Take the tale of Sammie Bell, the tough little nut of a girl who is the narrator of One Good Hustle. Sammie is saddled with an alcoholic mum and an ex-convict father: a couple of professional con artists incapable of bringing up their daughter. Marlene, the mother, has been threatening suicide for years, while the father (Sam, after whom Sammie is named) has decamped to Ontario.

Sammie decamps herself, and moves in with her friend Jill's strait-laced Christian family. The culture shock she experiences in the hands of the well-meaning but (in their own way) dysfunctional surrogate family forms the background of the tale of her attempts to find her dad, and reconcile with her sobered-up mom.

It's an adjustment for Sammie, to live the straight life. Sammie longs for her parents, and for the life they had together: travelling the United States, drifting and grifting, scamming for an income. Sammie was already well-trained in the cons. She looks back at those days with nostalgia, remembering scams in which she was given meaningful roles, learning the trade well enough that she continued to practise it while living with her do-gooder surrogates.

Sammie doesn't want to be a con artist, but she is beginning to suspect she will be. She feels it may be unavoidable, especially if she wants her father back. "The best September I can think of," she says, "would be sitting in the passenger seat next to my dad, driving south, working every angle we can. … I'd be there by his side, proving that I really am Sam's girl."

Sammie tells her tale in first-person, present-tense narrative, a device that suffers from overuse in the subgenre of Tough Teen Surviving Bad Parenting Lit. But it's the best device for a writer to recreate the sense that a gritty little kid is sitting in a chair in your living room, delivering her tale while sucking on a purloined Marlborough. Sammie is smart, mouthy, literate and articulate, and she compels you to listen. When she wants to create a sense of place, her metaphors are a marvellous blend of gritty teenspeak and inspired creation: The sun on English Bay is "smashed open on the blue water like a broken piggy bank"; Sammie's friend Jill despairs of her new waitress uniform by saying it makes her look "like a big white maggot."

Sammie learns to appreciate her foster-mom Ruby (she of the "octopus hugs") and covets the affection and stability of her gigantic foster-father, Lou. Meanwhile, love interest Drew circles Sammie with timid determination, alternately driven away and drawn in. Their bus trip to the country to visit his cousin Maggie, and ride her horses, is a pitch-perfect recreation of one of those adolescent experiences where so much is hoped for, and so much goes awry.

But still, it's a sad story. It's hard to read it and not want to reach through the pages and drag the kid out into the world of ordinary bad parenting – the lost tempers, the scoldings, the run-of-the-mill once-in-a-blue-moon spritzer binge. But if it weren't for bad parents, and lost children, there would be a lot fewer Billie Livingston books. So suffer, little children, and bring on the next tough little streetwise nut. I'll be waiting.

Diane Baker Mason is a Toronto writer, lawyer, and mother of two grown men, who suffered greatly at her hands. She is the author of Last Summer at Barebones and Men With Brooms.