Your Review Title

Burgess, Melvin. Smack. New York, NY: Avon Books, 2003.

external image 9780380732234.jpgMelvin Burgess' Smack is a heavy tale tracking the self-destruction of two teenage runaways and their friends as they descend farther and farther into the punk scene and heroine addiction.

Trapped in an abusive home, the shy, self-conscious David, nicknamed "Tar," runs away from his parents' home in Minely at the beginning of the novel. He arrives in Bristol, where he lives on the streets until his girlfriend, overeager Gemma, decides to run away from home as well. Tar, through the help of a friendly yet shady tobacconist, comes to live in a squat with Richard, Vonny, and Jerry, a trio of twenty-something anarchists. It isn't long before the crew throws a housewarming party in celebration of the new squat's success. The oft clueless Richard even promises to invite some kids Tar and Gemma's age, but motherly Vonny when she finds out who Richard has invited is furious because she "didn't know what those kids were on, but they were on something," and she "certainly didn't think it was a good idea to put them and Gemma in the same room together" (Burgess, 97).

Within a couple of days Gemma and Tar move in with Rob and Lily, the kids Richard had invited to the party. Gemma feels that she's finally found the friends she was always looking for, and she and Tar begin using heroine with Rob and Lily. Tar describes all of the pain of his life recently "just float[ing] away" (Burgess, 132). Gemma says it makes you "feel better than anyone else did" (Burgess, 150). Initially, they believe themselves and their friends to be stronger than the heroine, but eventually they realize that it was the heroine that tricked them into believing that in the first place.

Gemma and Lily begin working as prostitutes to raise money for their addiction. The group finds a couple of their friends OD'd in their apartment, then proceed to steal their "junk." Lily discovers that she's pregnant and cannot even determine if Rob is actually the father. They all agree to clean up together, but fail time and time again, each one too selfish to actually stop using. Gemma finds Lily blue from having overdosed in her bedroom and together they revive her. Lily eventually has a baby boy she names Sunny, who is hopelessly addicted to heroine, and she continues to use while breastfeeding. Tar takes the rap for his friends during a police raid, cleans up in a rehab center and then gets hooked within days of being out. All of these episodes reveal the complete helplessness of each of the characters. Lily, who Gemma once looked up to has become a monster. Tar, once the pathetic youth one could not help but to want to help has become utterly selfish, Gemma even says that she wants her "old Tar back" (Burgess, 203).

Eventually, following an ordeal in which Lily is violently assaulted by a "punter," the gang comes to live together under Gemma and Tar's roof once more. Gemma has just found out that she is pregnant. Lily reveals accidentally that behind her complete mistrust for anyone touching her baby is the knowledge that she deserves to have "her baby taken off of [her]" (Burgess, 250). Lily calls the police and turns in her friends, and she herself goes to a hospital to try and get clean. She goes back to Minely to stay near her parents and escape the whole scene. Tar goes to a detention center, where he is forced to get clean. Lily and Rob go to seperate rehab centers and are never heard form again.

Despite Tar's staying clean and their baby, Oona, Gemma and Tar eventually split up, as is predicted by everyone giving them treatment. Gemma stays clean with their baby in Minely, but Tar moves away, and reveals that he has been using a little again, a fact which marks his future as uncertain, but grim.

Recommendations for Teachers
As an introduction to the novel, I would recommend that a teacher ask the students if they have ever thought of running away. It may be interesting to have them write about one page on whether or not they have run away and what their plan to survive would be. After sharing some of these ideas, the teacher could then introduce the novel by giving the students some information about runaways in the UK. This information could be given by reading the brief note on squatting found at the end of the novel; it could also be supplemented with external materials.

Before actually reading the text, I would recommend that the teacher review the glossary that is also included in the novel. I do not think that it would be necessary to have the students re-write the words or take a quiz, but a brief overview would familiarize them with the words and also the glossary itself, which they would then be able to reference while reading the text.

The novel itself could be used to facilitate discussions about addictions of any kind. The novel has no authoritative voice that condemns any of the behaviors of the characters, and the characters themselves know that what they are doing is wrong, but they all seem to believe that they are in control of their addiction. Topics like drugs and prostitution are brought up very nonchalantly, but the consequences are brutal and obvious. This is a very realistic portrait of the life of an addict and the fact that it is told from many viewpoints will allow the students to connect with different characters and situations.

After reading the novel, the class could watch a video documentary about addiction so that the students can see the physical toll addiction takes on the body. There are many videos on youtube, the Discovery Channel's website and other sites; one such video is embedded in this page. There is also a television program called "Intervention" that could be used in class to show the effect that drugs have on members of the addict's family.

About Name of Author
Image From
Image From

Melvin Burgess was born on the 25th of April, 1954 in Twinkleham, Middlesex. That was not his permanent residence, however, moving frequently throughout his life (currently lives in Manchester with his wife and children). Burgess began writing at the age of 21 when he moved to Bristol, but it wasn't until his book The Cry of the Wolf in 1990 that any of his work was published. From the on he was busy writing young adult literature that dealt with controversial issues such as teenage sex, Alzheimers, cosmetic surgery, and heroine addiction. Many of his works were criticized for these themes, but he did recieve a lot of praise for them as well; he has won five Carnegie Awards, two Lancashire County Children's book of the year awards, and Guardian Children's fiction prize.

Burgess has written twenty books overall, all of which are listed below:

Sources: Biographical Information taken from, "Melvin Burgess.", and Book "Melvin Burgess.", 26 February, 2009.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

This is a video about an 18 year old, recovering heroin addict.

This is a documentary done by National Geographic about the life of an addict.

Additional Resources:
  • Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide - Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to Milkweed; Complete with chapter questions, response activities, and additional resources
  • Jerry Spinelli Home Page - Check out the artist's official site where you can contact him directly, check out the FAQs, or find out if he will be coming to your city on a scheduled tour!
  • Melvin Burgess Home Page - Home page of the author of Smack which includes book summaries and author information.
  • Andersen Press - Melvin Burgess' page on Andersen Press' website, the publisher of most of his books. The page includes author and book information.
  • Burgess Interview - The transcript of an interview done by Jubilee Books with Melvin Burgess.
  • Cool Reads - A website with reviews of young adult books. The reviews are done by young adults themselves.
  • Focus Adolescent Services - Resource for teen and family issues. Includes drug abuse guides, including a heroin addiction guide.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse - A government website detailing drug abuse. The site includes guides to many drugs, including heroin. It also has a section to teach students and young adults about drug abuse.
  • Do It Now - A website that discusses the effects and action of heroin. It includes information on abuse, overdose, addiction, and recovery.
  • Smack Book Review - A review of Smack done by Reading Matters. The review includes comments made my readers with their opinions and views on the books.

Reviewed by:
Crystal England
Jory Sanders
Colby Ensing
Cameron Kutzli
Other Reviews:
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie