Child's voice shines through in Sara Zuckerman's Yuck

by Diana Filar / Beacon Staff • December 8, 2011

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the oft-quoted words: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The dysfunctional family in Sara Zuckerman’s 79-page Yuck is no exception. The novella is the first of its kind for Undergraduate Students for Publishing’s Wilde Press — which released short story collections from students Michelle Cheever and Sean Van Deuren last year — and follows nine-year-old narrator Sam through a particularly eventful and peculiar summer. 

What captures and holds the reader’s attention throughout Yuck is Zuckerman’s grasp on the child’s voice.  Sam is at once captivating with her mature-for-her-years intelligence, but remains realistic because of her simultaneous innocence.  Lines like, “Statistics proved it was harder to get through life if you were ugly” show Sam’s early grasp on the realities of the world, but lie in stark contrast with her unfailing loyalty to a family that is far from perfect, and the complexity of her character alone makes this novella worthy of recommendation. 

Sam has been expelled from school, her teenage sister constantly teeters on the edge of a full breakdown, and her alcoholic mother introduces yet another boyfriend into her life — and once again, this one is apparently the one.  In her internal monologue, Sam recalls how often she’s heard this line, and the reader can commiserate — it’s something we’ve all heard or read before. Nevertheless, Sam hopes, “just for a moment that Jacob would be around long enough to buy her more dinners.”  The pairing of her hopeful childhood naiveté with a particular breed of precociousness that stems from both natural intelligence and life experience makes it difficult not to root for her. 

Even so, all the hope in the world cannot eliminate her need for a coping mechanism, and Sam turns to worms, a species she finds particularly fascinating after discovering their regenerative capabilities.  On a basic level, worms offer a distraction from her home life, but they also serve as something new to learn about: information that can quench her thirst for knowledge.

However, the obsession with worms seems somewhat overwrought once Sam’s other obsession — that with words — is introduced. At times, the symbolism behind a child digging in the ground (searching for some kind of meaning) and watching life reform (with said new life offering survival, hope) in order to combat family struggles feels obvious and goes on for too long.

Readers and writers alike will likely be more intrigued by Sam’s favorite words “worm” and “yuck” and her mission to constantly search for new vocabulary after she hears her mother tell her sister, Jess, to stop using “four letter words.”

She self-inflicts a pinching punishment every time she utters a four letter word in hopes that at least she will give her mother one fewer thing to be angry about. She can no longer say “worm” or “yuck,” creating a minor internal conflict, but also providing the reader with a glimpse into the psychology of a child acutely aware of the fact that the things we say wield tremendous power.

“Sam’s reluctance to use four letter words is a pretty great portrayal of how a young person’s mind can be both logical and illogical at the same time,” said Ross Wagenhofer, president of Undergraduate Students for Publishing. 

Zuckerman’s decision to tell this story from this particular child’s perspective — a child with strange, but intriguing quirks — puts a unique spin on the oft-seen narrative trope of a fraying family. 

At the end of Yuck, Zuckerman leaves the impression that Sam will end up all right, that she may even have the strength to thrive when she gets older.  And while there aren’t many “happy” moments in this novella — and the ones that do exist quickly reveal their true, unpleasant colors — there are hopeful ones, and sometimes, a hopeful ending leaves a more lasting impression than a happy one. 

The book launch will take place Friday, Dec. 9, at the Emerson College bookstore at 6 p.m. Books will be sold for $8 and all proceeds will benefit Children’s Aid Society.  

Watch an interview with Zuckerman by Nicole Shelby, co-editor-in-chief of The Emerson Review.