Shaindy Goodman is a twelve-year-old student who lives in an Orthodox community and attends a traditional Bais Yaakov school for girls. The pranks referenced in the title are dubious — in the sense that they are rooted in doubt. Shaindy is insecure, and neither popular nor academically outstanding. When her neighbor Gayil begins to pay her unexpected attention, Shaindy interprets the overtures optimistically, as a chance to be noticed. The price of the relationship is Shaindy’s agreement to participate in an elaborate series of destructive and personalized attacks. With careful precision, Mari Lowe explores the complex nature of preteen social interactions, as well as their emotionally dangerous consequences.
Shaindy points out the atmosphere of deception that pervades her seemingly perfect grade: “No one is mean to me aloud, of course.” She describes a kind of duplicity that goes unnoticed by adults. Gayil is calculating and reckless in a way that renders someone like Shaindy vulnerable. “I’m the shadow, the girl no one notices,” the protagonist thinks to herself. But as sad as she is about being so overlooked, she still accepts her status on some level. She can’t bring herself to be angry or to feel sorry for herself.
The story is laced with elements of mystery and psychological terror; Shaindy recognizes Gayil as “an accomplished liar,” whose acts of dishonesty go from “impressive” to “sinister.” However, Lowe’s narrative skills avoid drawing comforting distinctions between good and bad characters. She gradually develops a backstory for Gayil’s motives, alluding to her frustrations as one sibling in a large family. At the same time, Gayil’s cruelty keeps us from forgiving her outright. The themes of coming of age and young adult malice are not new, but Lowe’s approach is unusual in that it situates the challenges of growing up within the tensions of the yeshiva world. The pressure on Shaindy and her fellow students is intensified by the fact that they are constantly told to embody Torah values.
Despite her struggles, Shaindy still senses the strength of her community. Shopping in the local market for the fruits that will be part of her Rosh Hashanah observance, she is full of joy. Gayil is also shopping for the same purpose. When she reminds her younger sister and brother to make a bracha before sampling the food, her adherence to Jewish law seems as integral to her life as those destructive schemes that undermine Jewish values. The novel makes clear that, ultimately, both girls are searching for answers to their questions of identity.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.