TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains references to sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to survivors.
The world of human trafficking feels like a parallel universe to many people—despite the fact that there were 206 violations in 2014 alone, according to Statistics Canada, and those are just the ones that are reported—so we can safely assume that the actual numbers are significantly higher.
Human trafficking is defined by Public Safety Canada as involving “the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. It is often described as a modern form of slavery.”
As adults, we also tend to assume teens are blissfully unaware of all this, but the stats show that they aren’t nearly as sheltered as we think they are. In fact, the same Statistics Canada report shows that 25 percent of human trafficking victims reported between 2009 and 2014 were under the age of 18. Another 47 percent were between the ages of 18 and 25 percent of these victims are women.
In short, human trafficking is a very real issue in Canada—and the predominant issue in author Wanda Lauren Taylor’s first young adult novel, Ride or Die. The book is part of Lorimer’s SideStreets series, which Lorimer describes as “edgy, fast-paced novels that combine real-world themes and believable characters to make for short, heart-stopping books—sure to engage the most reluctant reader.”
In Ride or Die, protagonist Kanika, a 15-year-old girl growing up in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, is lured into sex work shortly after she and her friend Panama discover their “hideout” has been taken over by a group of older teens. Kanika gets a bad feeling and runs away, but since Panama’s “boyfriend” Gabe is there, she stays—and goes missing. Kanika’s concerned, but a distrust of police and a reluctance to “squeal” on her friend leads her to try to find Panama herself. But when she tries to get information from Danny, one of Gabe’s friends, she falls for Danny instead.
A textbook “Romeo pimp,” Danny carefully manipulates Kanika into believing that he loves her and that she’s his girlfriend. He starts by showering Kanika with attention, then buying her gifts and finally, just a couple of days after having sex with her (when she’s heavily invested), “testing her love” by asking her if she would let rats crawl on her if he asked (spoiler: she would). But despite the emotionally charged confusion she feels after the rat incident, she’s completely caught off guard when Danny tells her he’s going to take her to a party in Halifax—and then sells her to human traffickers who drug her, gang rape her and then transport her to a house in Scarborough. There, a high-ranking pimp named Dragon forces her into sex work.
It couldn’t have been easy to write a book about human trafficking that really examines all the subtleties, including voluntary sex work and the related issues of bodily autonomy and inherent risk that goes along with it. But it’s evident—in her acknowledgements and the book itself—Taylor has done her research. Not only does Kanika’s experience accurately mirror the actual reported experiences of many teenaged human trafficking victims, Taylor also uses subplots involving Kanika’s deceased parents and a voluntary sex worker named Ru to provide balance in her examination of sex work.
Ride or Die’s pacing and design is perfect for reluctant readers—the larger font, short, basic sentences and fast-moving plot will help keep teens turning the pages until they reach the satisfying ending.
There might be a bump or two along the way though, due to a couple of minor writing quirks throughout the book. There are a couple of moments when Kanika’s age feels inconsistent; while we realize later in the book that Kanika is 15 when the story begins, this fact is undermined by an early comment, where Kanika describes Gabe as “the boy who had been teaching Panama about older kid stuff, like kissing.”
The frequent use of specific verbs like “squealed excitedly,” which appears twice in two consecutive pages, and a heavy use of dialogue tags like “sang,” and “worried” and “laughed” instead of a simple “said” also felt jarring at times.
But overall, the writing flows well and Taylor’s fine story development and research skills outweigh these small writing issues. Ride or Die is an important cautionary tale for young-adult readers and a solid option for reluctant readers looking for a realistic page-turner.
Ride or Die
Wanda Lauren Taylor