Stronger Than You Know - Jolene Perry

After police intervention, fifteen-year-old Joy has finally escaped the trailer where she once lived with her mother and survived years of confinement and abuse. Now living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in a comfortable house, she's sure she'll never belong. Wracked by panic attacks, afraid to talk to anyone at her new school, Joy's got a whole list of reasons why she's crazy. Slowly Joy begins to find friends and grow closer to her new family. But just when hope takes hold, she learns she must testify in her mother's trial. Can she face her old life without losing her way in the new one?




After finally being pulled from a consistently traumatic living situation thanks to her mother and mother's live-in boyfriend, Joy Nielsons now lives with her aunt (mother's sister) and uncle. Though in a safer environment now, Joy seems to be showing signs of PTSD. She suffers from social anxiety, panic attacks, night terrors, and having any man -- ANY man -- anywhere near her immediately sets her on edge. That last one makes for challenging times for Joy, living in her uncle's house and trying to attempt public school for the first time, since previously her mom never let her leave the trailer they were living in. 


Perry throws the reader into all this pretty much instantly, leaving us to wonder what exactly DID happen to Joy to leave her so traumatized? As the story unfolds, we get the pieces little by little. Perry holds out giving the reader ALL the details til the very end, which I appreciated as it definitely kept me invested till the last page. The reader finds that Joy early on suffers a life of being underfed, under-educated, overworked, left virtually no opportunity to actually be a child. But it doesn't stop there. She also survives being burned, beaten, even possibly raped. Her world is limited to a 750 sq ft trailer and the yard around it... and before long even the yard is off-limits. Until one day when Joy's mother lets her check the mailbox. Serendipitiously, Joy happens to step outside just as a postal worker is putting the mail in the boxes, giving Joy the motivation to ask for help. The postal worker quickly notifies the police after seeing the marks on Joy's skin. Joy's mother and the live-in boyfriend are instantly rounded up and arrested. Meanwhile, Joy is sent to live with her aunt, offering her an opportunity at normalcy. 


This normalcy is anything but to Joy. Everything is a struggle. Especially when it comes to seemingly simple interactions with people around her. One morning as she's walking to school, Justin -- a boy in her grade -- approaches her, knowing nothing of her story. He simply wants to introduce himself to the new girl. Though she suspects there's no reason to fear him, old habits die hard. 


"I only just learned that my normal wasn't so normal after all... No matter what my surroundings are, I don't feel safe. Ever. It's even worse, because what I feel doesn't mix with logic." ~ Joy



Much to Joy's surprise and relief, Justin proves to be a cool and patient dude who doesn't write people off easily. He quietly and gently offers his friendship, going as slow with their interactions as she needs. Even when his feelings for her begin to grow, he's careful to respect her boundaries, which is always great to see in a male lead. Justin's patience and humor slowly raises Joy's comfort level not only with him but most people around her. Learning how to interact with Justin helps Joy learn how to be trusting enough with her uncle to get to know him. One especially poignant convo with her uncle shows that he might actually be one of her best allies in getting her footing back in the world. 



"On the nights when I know you've had a rough day, I can't sleep. It's like you're right here so I should be able to fix everything, but I can't. There's so little I can do because you have to do so much yourself. Each time you move forward, do something else... It gives me so much hope for you.... When you have a hard day or when I see you slipping backward, I'm desperate to stop it, to make you see how amazing you are, to help you know that you have so much to look forward to. The things that happened to you won't haunt you forever." (Joy's uncle)


"But I'll remember them forever." I know there's no forgetting and I'm still not sure what to do with that.


He sucks in a breath. "But they'll hurt less." 


I don't have to look at him to know there are tears on his face.


"There were a few times when I didn't care if I lived or died," I tell him. "But I'm happy now."


He sighs. Maybe I shouldn't have said it.


"Things are going to be okay for you, Joy. You're stronger than you know." His hand rests softly on my shoulder. "I promise."


I start to understand what it's like to have a dad. He cares about me. He thinks I'm strong. I hope I won't let him down...


I'm brave. I'm strong. I'm so going to do something I've never done.


As you might have gathered by now, this isn't the lightest read to delve into, but it's certainly an important one! Author Jolene Perry actually found inspiration for this novel from an actual court case that her husband served as prosecuting attorney on. Sadly, stories like Joy's actually do occur. In fact, some of Joy's experiences -- some, not all -- had echoes of my own childhood experiences, making this a bit of a trigger read for me. Though I had to take periodic breaks to get through it (even though it's not a long book at all), by the end I had been on such an emotional ride I felt I had to give this one 5 stars. Yep, it's one of those books where even though there were areas of the plot I would have liked to have seen better developed -- I was a little disappointed with the brevity of the courtroom scenes near the end, for instance -- I still consider it a solid 5 star read simply for all it made me FEEL for Joy.  I loved Joy's inner strength, always visible to the reader even when Joy didn't see it herself, and her determination to rise above her circumstances. I loved the way she dedicated herself to living up to her name.


I also got a kick out of the clever chapter headings such as "Sometimes there are no good answers", "Seriously, am I moving backwards?" or "Wait, Is this what it's like to do better?!" Oh, and I was tickled that Joy was given a slider phone as her first cellphone even though this book was only written 2 years ago... instantly made me think of all those people who lost it when Adele was seen using one in the "Hello" music video LOL



It's true what they say about joy. It's the kind of happiness that not only fills you up but spills over. Really, all you have to do is look for it, and then have the strength to let it in. And believe it or not, that's the hardest part.