After reading something as heavy as Wild, I was really looking forward to some light and fluffy teenage romance goodness from Sarah Dessen. I didn’t do my usual back-cover due diligence, though, because Dreamland was the darkest novel I’ve ever read by my favorite teen writer.
Caitlin O’Koren’s 18-year-old sister and shining star of the family, Cass, has run away from home. Mr. and Mrs. O’Koren are beside themselves with grief, worry and confusion, but Caitlin is not at all surprised by Cass’ latest stunt and goes on living her life. She sort of even, awful as it sounds, looks forward to filling the void her sister has left, hoping to finally get some attention from her parents. To achieve this Caitlin joins the cheerleading squad with her best friend Rina, but then she immediately meets Rogerson at one of their many cheerleader/football player parties (I was a cheerleader too, and we really had those. Sorry.). Rogerson is no football player, though; he goes to the local prep school, lives in the rich part of town and has a little side business selling weed to various locals. He and Caitlin fall in lust at first sight, and soon she is completely consumed by him, his friends and his very dangerous world.
Caitlin takes quite a liking to weed herself, which begins to affect her attitude toward her parents, Rina, cheerleading and school in general. She witnesses Rogerson’s dad hitting him on their first date and soon learns the hard way that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — one night she uses the wrong tone of voice on Rogerson and he smacks her across the face. Hard. She is too stunned to do anything about it, and in no time at all the hitting becomes a regular occurrence. Rogerson hits Caitlin if she is late to meet him somewhere, if he catches her speaking to anyone other than him — especially guys — if she is doing anything he just doesn’t want her to be doing. Caitlin cannot bring herself to tell anyone or attempt to end it, thus turns into a zombie-like creature who falls behind in school, quits cheerleading and basically becomes invisible to her parents, who are too preoccupied with getting her sister to come home to notice. (By the way, Cass doesn’t “run away” and take to the streets. She moves to New York to live with her older boyfriend and work on the set of a talk show, completely happy and able to support herself until she figures out what to do about college. I know she’s only 18, but that doesn’t sound too bad to me.)
Everything comes to a head the day of the O’Koren family’s annual April Fool’s party, when a guest witnesses Rogerson hitting Caitlin so hard she falls out of his car and onto their front lawn. The police take Rogerson away while Caitlin’s parents pack her bags and check her into a facility to address her smoking addiction and depression. I suppose that would be the right thing to do — it’s important to get the abused person to a safe, objective place to talk about what happened to them — but I just could not wrap my head around her parents’ reaction, especially her father’s. He is portrayed as a very stoic man from the first page, but still; he’s standing mere feet from the boy physically hurting his youngest daughter, his baby, and all he does is call the local rehab center? My father was not a violent man, but I can’t even begin to imagine what he would have done in that situation. On the other hand, I feel terrible for the parents. It is so clearly their fault Cass left — the mother suffocated her and the father could barely express an emotion — and they just could not understand that, then they almost lose their other daughter due to similar ignorance. I guess parenting is tough, eh?