Review: Stolen

Stolen by Lucy Christopher. Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic. 2010. Review copy picked up at ALA. Printz Honor.

The Plot: Sixteen year old Gemma is kidnapped by Ty and brought to the isolated Australian desert.

The Good: You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted something for a long time. No one had ever looked at me like that before, with that kind of intensity. It unsettled me, surprised me, I guess. Those blue, blue yes, icy blue, looking back at me as if I could warm them up.” So begins Stolen, Gemma’s letter to Ty (“you”), telling us what will happen over the course of the book. Ty’s obsession with a hint of history; Gemma not sure how to handle being the subject of such strong emotions; and an attraction to blue eyes with her own projections of what Ty may be thinking.

Stolen, told in first person, creates an unsettling tone of immediacy, of urgency, bringing the reader along with every tortured moment of Gemma’s captivity. It is not an easy journey, for either Gemma or the reader.

Christopher creates a sense of place that brings the reader right into the hotness, the dirt, the isolation of the Sandy Desert in Australia. Also conveyed is the beauty. Gemma herself begins to see the beauty in her surroundings.

Why a Printz Honor? Three things — writing, setting, characterization. Both Gemma and Ty are very real, in both their strengths and weaknesses.

Ty has kidnapped Gemma. I’ve read, and discussed, many things about Ty, and Ty and Gemma, about what Ty does and why. What follows is my interpretation, so there will be spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading now. Part of what makes this book Award worthy is the discussions that will result. So let’s start!

Ty is a broken person. Over the course of Stolen, the reader observes Ty breaking Gemma, as surely as he breaks a camel: “Once she trusts me, and she’s accepted me, she’ll like it better this way. Camels work in herds, you know. She’ll feel safer once she’s got someone to follow, a leader. The she doesn’t have to worry about being scared anymore.” Ty’s words are about a camel but could easily be about Gemma. And this is where Ty is disturbed. Not because he kidnapped Gemma — of course, that is a monstrous act. But because he never sees Gemma as an individual apart from himself. From the time he first encounters Gemma at age ten, she is a fantasy, a person he projects his own needs and fears on, a mirror for him to see himself and save himself.

Except, of course, Gemma is not a mirror, a blank slate, a doll to be manipulated. She is a person with her own thoughts and needs, desires, at an age — sixteen — where she is trying to figuring out her own place in the world. At that moment and place in her time, in her emotional development, Ty takes her and tries to break her, to shape her into who he wants her to be. The heartbreak of Stolen is the degree to which he succeeds.

Ty sets up a situation where he, literally, is Gemma’s world. There is no one else, nothing else. The bed she sleeps in, the house she lives in, the clothes she wears, the water she drinks, all of this is built by or supplied by Ty. Who can withstand the constant assault of his words and beliefs? Who can hold out from beginning to think what he says isn’t sickness but truth?

Ty’s obsession is shown repeatedly by his words to Gemma, his belief that he knows all her thoughts and needs and desires, along with his desire to shape her to be who he wants her to be. “Give in, Gemma.” “I’ll never let you go.” “You’re going to like this.” “It’s better like this, just you and me. It’s the only way it could work.” “I’ve saved you from all that.” Ty believes that his need and love are all that should matter to Gemma:  “This land wants you here. I want you here. Don’t you care about that at all?”

What Ty never comprehends is Ty wanting Gemma doesn’t matter, no more so than my, say, wanting Robert Downey Jr. here in my room is something he should care about. That Ty is cute and hot and Gemma has some physical attraction may confuse her own feelings but it doesn’t change that Ty is about possession and owning. Not love. That Ty does not physically hurt her is immaterial (and almost a cop out, given that kidnappers do physically hurt their captives. Plus, he is the direct cause of all her injuries in Australia, from third degree sunburn to snake bite.)

As for love, his own emotional needs are reflected in the definition he gives Gemma: “People should love what needs be loving. That way they can save it.” Ty is all about that “should”– he has created his own world in the desert and so now believes he has the right to control all, including his designated companion to keep him from being alone, Gemma. Who needs loving? He thinks it is Gemma and his love will save her, but this is about Ty and what Ty needs. He needs love, he needs saving, so people — Gemma — should love him.

That’s not the way love works. Ty’s “love” is not love.

By the end, away from Ty, Gemma is trying to figure out her own thoughts about what happened. Hence her letter to Ty. Much like Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian woman held captive from ages 8 to 19, she doesn’t see Ty as a monster, she has some pity and compassion and can see some good. Gemma manages to have some balance, in that she realizes and wants “to make you [Ty] realize what you did wasn’t fair, wasn’t right.” She is even beginning to realize that Ty’s view of things is not “right” and need not be her view. Whether she can really escape him, whether she will remain, mentally, “stolen” from who she was before the abduction and who she was meant to be if Ty had not interfered, remains unknown.

Not everyone reads Ty the way I have. Some other ways of seeing Ty: Stacked; GalleySmith; Bookalicious

On the other hand, some share my viewpoint: Teen Reads (with the great line I almost want to steal: “But that is part of the challenge of the book: Ty, no matter how he looked or what he said, is a dangerous and abusive figure. Readers must be wary of falling prey to the deception of the predator.”)

Also, check out the Q&A with the author from the publisher’s website.

18 thoughts on “Review: Stolen

  1. I found the lack of injuries a total cop out as well, a romanticized version of kidnapping. He’s been obsessed with Gemma for years and you’re telling me he doesn’t have a twisted view of “love” that would easily justify what the rest of us would consider abuse? Kidnapping is already a huge violation – so why is the line drawn there?

    Absolutely loved Gemma’s interactions with the camel though. The parallels between the two were horrifying and fascinating.


  2. I found the lack of abuse to be idealized but . . . as a writer, I thought it was effective — to put sexual abuse in the novel is the give the reader something to instantly hang their hat on as evil, and the absolute insidious magic of STOLEN is that you, as the reader, develop Stockholm syndrome as well. While the psychological ramifications of abuse in real life work into the Stockholm syndrome, on the written page . . . I think it would’ve made it less ambiguous.

    Can you tell I was quite taken with this book? I thought it was quite a feat of writing, and as a reader, one of the things that made Ty’s message so insidious was of course we all agree that our lives are cluttered and worse for it and don’t many us want to be “saved”? CLEVER.


  3. Angie, exactly — whatever Ty feels, it is not love.

    Maggie, once fist hit flesh the reader would top any sympathetic feelings for Ty. So I think that’s why physical abuse does not happen in STOLEN. But physical abuse is not the only abuse one person can inflict on another, and yes, I think it is a cop out for a reader to believe that because Ty’s fist does not hit Gemma’s flesh he does not abuse her. He does, over and over. I think this is less Stockholm Syndrome and more the brainwashing that Patty Hearst or the Manson girls experienced, without the violence.

    And I have to disagree about the wanting to be saved — I guess because I don’t want that, I cannot see Ty’s actions as anything other than controlling & abusive.

    And part of my strong reaction is the because of the readers comments I see about how sad it was that Gemma and Ty don’t end up together, and of course they get together later, and how could Gemma not want to stay with Ty. Ty as romantic hero — no, no, no.

    I think this is a well written book; I understand why the Printz committee gave it an honor book. I also find Ty disturbing. Abuse is not always a fist. It counts even if he doesn’t hit.

    Link to the comments that bothered me:


  4. I have not read the book (yet) but am intrigued. Some of what you say reminds me of the unreliable narrator in Chris Lynch’s amazing novel Inexcusable, which was a National Book Award finalist. Mostly, I have to say that I appreciated the link to those youtube comments, Liz. I found many of them very troubling.


  5. Liz and Maggie,

    I was fascinated by this book! I think the absence of physical abuse was to create the exact conundrum that she did: we as readers are conflicted about our feelings for Ty, just like Gemma is, for most of the book. I found myself questioning why I felt sympathetic toward him, when I knew in my gut that I should not, and that would not have been possible if more obvious violence had been present. I was proud of Gemma for tearing herself away finally and recognizing that in spite of his obvious charms and misguided intentions, what he did was wrong and monstrous. The parallel with the camel was excellent, and I’m wondering if it was intentionally used as an illustration for a the younger YA set, some of whom clearly still see Ty as a romantic hero.


  6. Kellye, please let us know what you think after you’ve read the book.

    Maggie, since I stayed up all night thinking about this book there is another check mark under the “why this got a Prinz honor column”. (for the record, that is the only column). I understand what you’re saying about cluttered lives. (Tho at this point I must repeat, we are never told if Gemma has this belief on her own life in terms of the text here.) I think other books also feed this need to leave such clutter behind, from memoirs of people traveling/moving to the country to zombies; and in real life, cults/certain religions offer mental clutter-free lives, with all answers to life’s questions and gray areas handily answered. I can see that. And I get what you’re saying about how this fits that need and, perhaps, would add that it fits the need of teens wanting to escape family and town, a need that is met for many via college.

    I still cannot get from that point to “I cannot believe Gemma didn’t give Ty a chance when he loved her so much” being evidence of Ty’s love, etc. And I still read Ty’s actions as abusive and controlling.


  7. Eden, sorry, your comment was hidden in spam. I think the issue of sympathy for Ty brings up a powerful discussion point: if we are sympathetic to Ty and believe his punishment should be humane, shouldn’t that be true of other people, other suspects? Is it only Ty who gets this compassion? Or is it asking us to see other suspects in a a more compassionate light? Should we stop saying suspects have no soul, that they should be put in jail & throw away the key, etc?


  8. I think many of my problems with the book absolutely centered around the fact that there was this implicit expectation or manipulation of the reader to feel sympathy for Ty, but I couldn’t get past the inexcusable horror of his actions. It is fantastically written, and even the “cop out” regarding the lack of physical violence (if you aren’t considering the drugging, and the restraints, etc) and focusing more on the lack of sexual violence gets a slight bit of a pass because it is conceivable that when considering his past as a victim of sexual abuse and prostitution, he had a better understanding of that line. But I really, truly, had a very difficult time reading this, and did not enjoy it. But I can admire the writing and the fait accompli of the novel, the setting, the voice, and especially the character development. But it does scare me a great deal that he’s considered a romantic hero. Because he’s not. And I have a hard line on that.


  9. Liz – Love your point about not wanting to be saved, so Ty instantly lacks appeal that way. I was explaining my thoughts on this to my husband (who hasn’t read the book), and while he can see the appeal of an ambiguous “villain,” Ty would lose a lot of sympathy from him because he removed all of Gemma’s agency when he drugged her and took her from that airport. And I think that was the root of the problem for me, too: Ty cannot be sympathetic for me because he doesn’t see Gemma as a person who can make valid life choices. He doesn’t offer to help her get away from the parents she dislikes – he kidnaps her.


  10. Jackie, I think Ty created certain lines that he wouldn’t cross to prove to himself that he wasn’t a “bad” person and that he was doing a “good” thing. I think some readers may be buying into his line-drawing. He resists physical or sexual assault, either because (like you said) his own past victimhood or because he thinks, “bad people hit, I don’t hit, therefore I am not bad.” The age thing is another artificial line he creates, insisting his desire for Gemma didn’t “really” begin until she was 14, an age when he believes it is more acceptable to desire her than at age 10.

    I had originally been thinking of “cop out” as to readers who (IMHO) are using the “he didn’t hit her” excuse for liking Ty. But I see I was ambiguous!

    And I agree with you about the horror of his actions, and his being viewed as a romantic hero.


  11. Angela, YES YES YES about Ty’s removal of Gemma’s agency. And seriously, Gemma’s depiction of her home life seemed, well, average. Nothing more, nothing less. This, leaving typical parents & suburban lifestyle, justifies kidnapping her, taking away all her choices? One of my favorite parts of the book is at the end, when the mother basically gives Gemma back her power of autonomy: you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.


  12. I liked Stolen, but I was startled to see this get a Printz Honor when Living Dead Girl, which I though was far more raw and a better written book, never got that kind of recognition.


  13. I think I didn’t do well at conveying my mixed feelings. I loved the book loved, loved, loved, but why? There was struggle and grit but I was sympathetic to Ty. I shouldn’t have been. The writer does her job.


  14. Pam, this is one of the books where I wish we were all in a room together for the conversation to take place in real time and in real life. I can understand being sympathetic to Ty — what I don’t understand (and I’m talking in general about reviews I’ve read or comments I’ve read) is that the sympathy (for some) becomes both acceptance of what Ty does and normalization of what Ty does. Both that what he did becomes OK with the reader as well as “well of course someone would do that.” Or, that the “only” thing he did wrong was kidnapping when he did many more things than that which were wrong.

    And then there is the sympathy extends beyond the book — that is, as you say “I shouldn’t have been” (realization by reader, like Gemma’s, which, as you point out, good writing) as opposed to the comments I’ve read that continue not just the sympathy (poor Ty) but add to it a romantic element (Ty & Gemma forever, what a shame they are not together at the end of the book, hope that a sequel shows these two lovebirds reunited, that Ty did the right thing in kidnapping Gemma).

    That has nothing to do with the writer. It has to do with the reader response. What I’m saying here is what I’d say to the reader (teen or adult) in real life — Ty is not a romantic hero.


  15. This is Lotita lite. why is this being offered to our kids? why is it offered by Scholastic? Isn’t there some body (besides parents) who cares how these things are classified, and to whom they are peddled?


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