Letter to My Younger Self: Read Slake’s Limbo!

A Review of Slake’s Limbo by Felice Holman (1974)

Slake's Limbo Felice Holman

by REBECCA, February 25, 2013

I first mentioned Slake’s Limbo in my post “YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse: A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff,” in the section on how to Survive Urban(-ish) Perils. I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that post, only heard about it, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for a copy ever since. The other day—bless the Fates!—I found a copy in perfect condition at a used book store in town. It’s a really skinny book, so I almost overlooked it, but it was like it was waiting for me. Total time it took to read? Oh, maybe an hour, spread out because I kept it in the kitchen and read it while waiting for bread to toast, etc. But, man, did it pack a punch. And, while I think I might be too old to experience the “favoriteness” that I would have felt about this book if I had read it when I was ten or eleven—that glorious age of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish—I still thought it was wonderful.

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanThirteen-year-old Aremis Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, one day, a group of bullies from school are chasing Slake and he ducks into the subway to escape them. He rides the trains idly all day and finally realizes that there’s no reason he needs to go back to his life at all. So he doesn’t. He finds a little alcove in a subway tunnel and lives there, reselling newspapers for money, ducking beneath the turnstiles to ride the rails, and making friends with a rat.

Slake’s Limbo is written in 1974, so there’s a very particular feel to the atmosphere of subterranean New York City. Its version of New York reminded me a little of Harriet the Spy‘s, written ten years earlier. There is the grit and dirt of the city here, certainly (far moreso than in Harriet’s Upper East Side), but also that air of more-innocent-times that seems to cling to narratives set before the eighties. Slake becomes acquainted with several regular newspaper customers on the train platform and even their interactions feel of another time. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of very contemporary YA novels recently, but I’m feeling the distance between now and then a lot lately . . .

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanAs I said, this is a very slim book—about 115 pages in my copy, with its (very) 1986 cover illustration—and maybe that’s why its lyricism hit me. We are told everything about Slake, a narrative device that is frowned upon. Yet, it’s a very personal book, and the description of Slake’s spaces takes his interiority. I kind of think that this is the same story that we might read in an Adam Rapp novel, say, but written from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. The heartbreak is all here, but its stated baldly and without sympathy as opposed to being expressed through action. Yeah, I think Slake’s Limbo and Punkzilla (2009) should be book friends.

Also, did I mention that the prose is 70% concrete and 30% feathers?:

Just before he awoke, it seemed, Slake would dream that a bird had come to the sooty window, open just enough to keep him from asphyxiating . . . that it had come to the sill and perched there, perilously near the inner edge so that it might, at any moment, fall or fly into the room. In his fear that this small creature of the air might blunder into this hostile place, Slake would open his mouth to cry out. As he did so, the bird woud lean forward and land in Slake’s mouth. Then Slake swallowed it. Slake would awake, gagging (7).”

Slake escapes from the hostility of his above-ground home and into a subterranean room of his own. Never good at anything in his life, he quickly finds himself quite capable of surviving, making enough money to eat, learning the routes of all the trains, even feeding a rat hungrier than himself. I can’t tell you precisely what made Slake’s Limbo so compelling to me, exactly. It’s simple, clean, and lovely, that’s all. I will now go to the library and try to check out everything else that Felice Holman has ever written.

Note: there is an audiobook version of Slake’s Limbo read by Neil Patrick Harris! How delightful.


Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (1998). This is short British novel about a young boy whose sister is sick and who finds a bird-man-angel dripping with bugs in his shed, so of course I love it. The bird-man-angel eats Chinese food, for god’s sake. Skellig is a very simple story, but its elliptical quality makes it haunting and very re-readable.

Have you read anything by Felice Holman? How do I not know her? Please advise.



  1. Timothy

     /  February 26, 2013

    Oh wow, I totally read this as a kid! With that very blonde, very NYC subway cover. I recognize it so well. I think I actually stole it off my older brother’s shelf. Thanks for this review – I’m going to have to go back and reread it now.

  2. Margalit

     /  February 25, 2013

    I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between reading things that are set in an earlier time, and those, like this book, that are created during that time, but read for the first time now. This sounds like a wonderful, small slice of NY in the 70s. And I love that “the prose is 70% concrete and 30% feathers”!

  3. I looove this concept of recommending stuff to our younger selves. I totally want to read this now.

    I’d also recommend Ivy by Sarah Oleksyk as a readalike – a story about a painter, sort of a hard-to-get-close-to character, who runs away from home and has to figure it out the hard way.

    • I don’t know that I’d agree with that – Ivy is very interesting, but it’s directed at a much older demographic (plus it’s a graphic novel). Ivy runs away from home as a senior and part of her search for self involves sex, drugs, and some fairly frightening experiences. Slake is more a victim of his circumstances, reacting to the world around him and struggling to become a person while Ivy is pretty straightforward teen, making bad decisions as she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants and how she relates to other people and her art.

      • I think graphic novels are great readalikes to prose novels, and although Ivy is aimed at an older demographic, I think one of the great things that books can do is show a different perspective to similar situations, which is why I’d still recommend it. Maybe not to a young reader, but that’s not what this blog is aimed at.

    • Thanks, T—Ivy sounds great!

  4. Felice Holman is such a beautiful writer. Sadly, I had to weed many of her titles recently because they just weren’t circulating, however I did save Slake’s Limbo. The Cricket Winter was one of the first books I write an essay on and it remains my favorite. It’s younger than Slake’s Limbo, but still deals with really complex themes and has that same lovely language. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7VnOnXTxTD9M2J3eFJ2LWRfX28/edit?usp=sharing
    Her Elisabeth trilogy are my personal favorites, about a little girl exploring the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Silently, the Cat, and Miss Theodosia is a kind of night-time dream with a light plot. It’s sort of a lengthy picture book. Those are my favorites. The Wild Children and Real are more in the vein of Slake’s Limbo and she has a couple light-hearted chapter books as well, Professor Diggins’ Dragons and The Blackmail Machine.

  5. Save Aremis Slake! Yeah, I *love* the new cover, although the cheesy 80s cover and the eerie 70s one are pretty cool too, if not appealing to the youth market. So glad I finally read it.

  6. I am so glad they gave that book a new cover in the reissue. Nobody had checked out our hardcover in many years, to the point where it had to go bye-bye. But thanks to the shiny new cover, I just ordered the paperback last week, so hopefully kids will enjoy it again.

%d bloggers like this: