"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Nonfiction review: PUNCHING BAG

Rex Ogle, the author of the memoir Punching Bag, came to our attention in 2019 when he published his first memoir, Free Lunch. I'm led to believe Punching Bag picks up where Free Lunch left off. Starting with a flashback to age seven, Ogle tells how his mother blamed the death of his unborn sister on him since he wasn't there to save her from the abuse from her new husband. Guilt carried Rex forward, though intellectually he knew it wasn't his fault he couldn't shake the feeling that it was. Throughout the book Ogle chronicles the abuse he survives as his unstable Mexican-American mother and his alcoholic step-father often turned their vicious venom on him after they were done attacking each other. Throughout Rex imagines his unborn sister as his guide and mentor, helping him when no help comes from any other quarters.

Rex Ogles' bleak story of abuse is tempered by notes at the beginning and the end that assure readers that he survived and if they are in similar circumstances, they can, too. 

Memoirs are tricky types of nonfiction. As a reader I am reminded that the writer may be embellishing or rearranging details to make the story flow better. Most people are fairly unreliable when recounting details from their own lives. What I found to be the most realistic in Ogle's memoir is the tension he always felt when life was normal. In the background there was always the possibility of imminent threat. Like a person hiking in the forest who hears, but doesn't see, a menacing growl infrequently. Will some creature pounce at any moment? The threat of potential harm must have been stressful to the maximum. Ogle did a great job describing life lived on the edge of danger.

As an educator, I was sad that Ogle had no teacher who noticed or stepped in to help him. There were a few close calls, where teachers would keep him after class to ask about a black eye but there were no reports of any serious interventions. It breaks my heart that the helpers didn't offer much help in his life.

What I liked about the book:

  • Ogle's writing is very strong and quite compelling. Even when I was cringing due to the details of the abusive life, I still wanted to read on.
  • The book is short and I imagine it is one that teens will be willing to read.
  • If a student is living in similar circumstances this book should provide solace and hope.

What I didn't like about the book:

  • The opening and closing messages of survival and hope weren't added to the story. We learned, in the afterward, that Ogle had to move in with his grandmother his junior year of high school but we never learned the circumstances that led to the move and how he coped with the trauma he experienced. I suspect there is a third book in the works.
  •  We also did not learn what happened to his younger brother, a boy that Rex spent a lot of time protecting and shielding from similar abuse.

Source: print edition, from public library

Target audience: ages 14-18.

Punching Bag was selected as the Cybils Award winner for 2021 High School Nonfiction. This is what the selection committee, of which I am one member, said about the book:

Punching Bag is a powerful yet troubling memoir of physical and mental abuse by Rex Ogle. Rex was raised and abused by his emotionally troubled mother and his alcoholic stepfather and each short chapter details an episode when Rex is abused or reflects on earlier instances of abuse.  Through it all, Rex tries to make sense of what is happening to him:  Why does it keep happening?  Is it his fault?  What can he do to make it stop?  Determined to stop the familial pattern of abuse, he resists violence and being abusive himself. 


Clearly, Punching Bag is not a book for everyone at all times and is often difficult to read, but young readers who are themselves abuse victims will find in Rex Ogle’s voice someone who understands their pain.  Other readers will find their capacity for empathy expanded as they respond viscerally to Rex’s ordeal.  The book ultimately provides ways to be hopeful in the face of overwhelming torment.


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