Review: Karen Joy Fowler – “The Pelican Bar”

Our ACORN intern Emily Dougherty (17) reviews a powerful short story by Karen Joy Fowler (Booker Prize nominated for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) from her collection What I Didn’t See (2012), which we have used in our Reading Rooms with young people to great acclaim. “The Pelican Bar” presents a chilling tale of teenage abuse.

At a time when many are re-reading Margaret Atwood’s disturbing classic The Handmaid’s Tale due to the new TV adaptation, “The Pelican Bar” presents another chilling tale of institutional abuse as part of an obscure and totalitarian power structure.

‘The Pelican Bar’: A Fictional Story of Real World Abuse

“I don’t belong here,” Norah said. She was trying to keep the Pelican Bar. To do that, she had to give Mama Strong something else. There was probably a smarter plan, but Norah couldn’t think of anything. “Nobody belongs here,” she said. “This isn’t a place where humans belong.”

This short story sets us at the 15th birthday of Norah. She talks of the gifts she’s received, the people she met, and goes on to say how her friends Kayla and Enoch brought her “special birthday” mushrooms which are called Hawk’s Eyes. She takes so many that she is still tripping the next day when she wakes up, which is when her mother and father give her over to Mama Strong.

Mama Strong takes her on a plane to her new home, an old motel, where she shares a room with ten other girls, sleeping on a mattress on the floor with the lights always on. Mama Strong tells the girl that she is now her new mother, and that the other girls are her family – called the Power family.

Norah’s life from here on in is lived on a points system. The more points she can gain, the more she is treated like a human being: access to personal care, talking and doing anything that isn’t keeping quiet, and staying still can only be allowed if you have enough points earned. To earn those points, you have to be good, which in this case means to demolish any and all self-esteem, talk about only your negative personality traits, and to tell Mama Strong if anyone else in the Power family is misbehaving.

There is also a punishment regime called the Think Again Position (TAP), that takes place in Room 303. If someone is sent to TAP, they are forced to lie face down on the bare floor; only every three hours, a shift in position is allowed. If the girls move at any other time they are put in restraint, a staff member would put their knee on the person’s spine and others would pull the student’s limbs back and up as far as they could go and further.

A couple of weeks before her birthday, Norah loses all of her points, for “lying” in group session, and for this she is sent to Room 303.  After her release she receives two postcards for her 16th birthday – one from her mother and one from her father. They decided to fly and visit her, but because she was in TAP they weren’t able to go and see her. Instead, they ate at a restaurant called Pelican Bar, which was also where they bought their postcards. From there on the Pelican Bar becomes Norah’s crutch, something she will cling to whenever she needs it, somewhere she can go in her in her mind to escape her present reality.

Then, on her 18th birthday, she is allowed to leave the motel. By law, she isn’t allowed to stay there anymore, so she is free to go. She buys a t-shirt, a skirt, a cola, and two boat trips – to and from the Pelican Bar. She also buys a postcard for Chloe, a girl who just arrived at the motel before she left. On it, Norah writes “On your eighteenth birthday, come here, and eat a fish right off the line. I’m sorry about everything. I’m a bad person.”

The Pelican Bar has a strange effect, as though a stranger has sat beside you and has told you all the tragedies of their life, of how they have been formed into the person they are today, and of every single moment they have ever experienced. And after they have told you this – as you finish reading the story – they leave.  You’re left now knowing of what happened, and you can do nothing but process the story, run it over a few times, then realise what the story is about, who these characters are, what this Pelican Bar would look like.

There is a real-life Pelican Bar in Jamaica, and clues from the beginning of the story set the start somewhere between 2008-2010. Alongside all of this, the story is about abuse, a very serious and very real topic. While this story is fictional, this is an extremely common issue. According to the NSPCC, over 57,000 children are currently identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK, with more than 2,100 of those children from Northern Ireland – and there’s definitely even more who haven’t been identified yet.

Reading how Norah and the other girls were treated is terrifying; it could be extremely similar to the true story of someone who is going through abuse, whether at their own home or somewhere they have been sent to live. It being set in a very modern-day time can really change how you view it.

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