Allison's Book Bag

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt

Posted on: October 24, 2013

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt is about three adolescent girls who try to avoid being caught in a lie by telling a bigger one. The difference in the two lies is that being caught in the first would have only resulted in their own suffering, while the success of the second brought suffering mostly to an innocent vagrant, but also to the girls’ families, school, and even their community. As a result of the second lie, the girls are forced to face questions not only about who they want to be but also about the fuzzy lines that exist between right and wrong. Harmless is a somewhat slow-moving story that raises disturbing issues.

Cover of "Harmless"

Cover of Harmless

The latter is what I most appreciate about Harmless. While certainly being caught at a guy’s party would have resulted in unpleasant consequences, the act itself is not uncommon for teens and could have been easily forgiven. Saying instead that they were attacked at the riverfront, the girls’ lie has a much greater impact. For starters, the police are called. While the three girls expected this to happen, none of them are prepared for being cast in the role of heroes. Overnight, Anna goes from being a wallflower to being popular. Mariah doesn’t lose her reputation as a snob or a slut, but suddenly these attributes become irrelevant. Only Emma isn’t happy with the attention, for reasons to be explained later. In becoming heroes, the girls are bombarded with questions — questions that might have been tolerable if they had really been attacked. Or if the police had allowed the case to grow cold. Or if no one had been charged with the crime. On top of all of these mounting repercussions there’s the issue of why Emma isn’t happy with the attention, which is because something bad really did happen to her when the girls were sneaking off to parties. To complicate matters even further, one of the girls’ dads had been involved in a crime many years before, which is now brought to light again. Yes, there’s a lot going on in a book of only two-hundred pages, but Reinhardt masterfully weaves the subplots together to make a suspenseful and cohesive story.

At this point, let me take a step back to consider how Harmless fits into my round-up of books about misfit and troubled kids. Before getting caught up in their web of lies, Anna and Emma were just your average smart, quiet, and obedient girls. Their parents never had reason to question them, nor did their teachers. And their classmates never took much notice of them. What I found interesting is how this changes after the lie. Anna shakes off her timidity and begins to show signs of being a leader. She also starts wearing make-up, tries out a new wardrobe, and begins dating. As for Emma, before the lie she had shown signs of wanting to break free from her cloistered identity. After the lie, she instead retreats further into seclusion — to the point that both her brother and the school psychologist guess that she is hiding something. Then there is Mariah. I appreciate that Reinhardt takes time to explore Mariah’s identity, letting readers see why Mariah chooses the façade of a bad girl. Most intriguing is the reaction of the three girls when faced with the choice of telling the truth or allowing an innocent vagrant to be jailed for a crime that never happened. Although I guessed Emma’s secret early in the story, Reinhardt did surprise me somewhat with how her confession plays out. And through it, she explores those fuzzy lines between right and wrong.

I have only two criticisms of Harmless. The first is that the first several chapters are mostly about how the girls became friends. This is almost pure background information, which is not enough to move the story forward. My second criticism is that because the story only gains momentum when the lying begins, the story is perhaps too focused on that pivotal point. What this means is that I suspect I would not have any in reading it again in a few years.

But the book is certainly worth reading once. It borders on being creepy, which is a compliment. It’s riveting how three girls can create a lie that can impact so many people. And it’s equally fascinating to see them squirm as the consequences of their lie pile upon them. Harmless will also stimulate much thought, because of the questions it raises about the lines between good and bad.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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