We didn’t have any urban legends in the neighborhood I grew up in. Not unless you count the story about Timmy eating yellow snow and it ended up being radioactive snow and now there’s a super hero called Pee Boy, but that’s a whole different story. As a kid, we kept our boogeymen where they belonged: in the closet and under the bed. And sometimes in the bathtub behind the shower curtain that flutters when there’s no breeze. Creepy. Where was I? Oh. Urban legends. Which brings me to the book What We Knew by Barbara Stewart.
16-year-old Tracy and her best friend Lisa have the entire summer stretching out in front of them. They spend the hot nights drinking wine coolers and smoking pot in the jerk Trent’s bedroom. (Trent’s a jerk because he’d trip a 3-year-old just to watch him fall down and cry.) One night as the group of drunken teenagers walk around town, they start to talk about Banana Man. Banana Man is a boogeyman/pedophile urban legend who supposedly lives in a shack in the woods. He’s called the Banana Man because…..well, what does a banana look like? Yeah. Gross.
All the kids in the town have grown up hearing the legend of Banana Man: that he kidnaps small children and that they’re never seen again. While wandering the town, Trent says he knows where the boogeyman’s house is in the woods. Like a bunch of dumb teens in a horror movie they traipse out into the darkness (the only way you’re going to get me out into the woods at night where there might be some paranormal thing happening is to spike my Captain Crunch with Ketamine). This is the point where I started yelling at the book like I do when I watch horror movies: “Why are you going into the basement? Oh, the basement light doesn’t work? Better go all the way to the bottom of the stairs and call out ‘Who’s there?’ so the killer/monster can find you faster.”
This drunken Scooby Gang find a rambling structure of boards and tarps, not even a shack but a Frankenstein house cobbled together from found parts. Inside, there’s furniture, a piano, and a kitchen with boxed food in it. And a collection of glass eyes. GLASS EYES. People have been dumping stuff in the woods for years and the Banana Man collected it. There’s no sign of the boogeyman himself. The teens set about wrecking the place, breaking dishes, tearing cupboards apart. Trent, being the jerk that he is, pees in a corner. Tracy becomes uneasy and they all begin to freak each other out and run. Lisa loses her necklace and a flip-flop.
This is the beginning of the terror for Tracy and Lisa.
Lisa’s mom works the night shift at a local diner. Her strict stepfather works days so it’s up to Lisa to watch over her 11-year-old sister Katie. After going to the Banana Man’s tarp house in the woods, Lisa becomes obsessed with it. She wants to go back to find her necklace and her lost flip-flop. She also thinks the Banana Man has been coming into her room. She even wakes up one morning to find a glass eye on her dresser. Lisa’s paranoia starts to get to Tracy. Her friend’s fear invades every part of Tracy’s daily life, from her relationship with her boyfriend to her feelings about her deadbeat father and her mother who is struggling to pick up the pieces of her life.
Lisa begins to deteriorate further, pushing Tracy and everyone else away. Other secrets increase the sense of paranoia and fear with dark deeds coming to light. Tracy is sitting on her own secret, something that happened that she hasn’t told Lisa about, something she’s not sure she ever wants to talk about.
I thought What We Knew would be a book about a supernatural entity living in the woods that preys on young people. Actually, it’s more about long hot summer days and nights with your future spread out in front of you, but still not being able to let go of your past. There are secrets that are destroying you on the inside, but you believe it’ll be better to keep everything in. It’s about seeing your parents as something other than parents. It’s about trying to be a best friend and feeling like you’ve failed miserably.
Darkly intense and full of teenage despair and ennui, What We Knew will make you face your fears. And make you think twice about venturing into the woods in the night. Or during the middle of the day. Or any time at all.