Novel vividly reveals struggles of disadvantaged youth

“The Middle Step,” the debut novel by Denise Pattiz Bogard.  The book (High Hill Press, 346 pages, $18.99

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The unsung heroism of a well-meaning Jewish woman to serve as a caring foster mom for four deeply troubled and  disadvantaged teenage girls is told with sensitivity and skill in the “The Middle Step,” the debut novel by Denise Pattiz Bogard. 

The book (High Hill Press, 346 pages, $18.99) details the challenging experiences of Lisa Harris, a white, Jewish, middle-class woman whose marriage has been severely challenged by a series of miscarriages. 

Seeking some meaningful respite from the emotional turmoil of being estranged from her husband, Lisa responds to a classified ad seeking a woman to live with and care for four teen girls in the Girls in Family Trouble (GIFT) House in north St. Louis. The ad is looking for someone to serve “as a foster mom and guide the girls through the academic and emotional challenges of high school.” 

At her initial interview, supervisor Sheila Johnson warns Lisa that girls at the residential home have had serious trouble in their pasts. 

“Every one of these kids has endured situations that warrant them leaving their families to live here,” the supervisor tells her. 


Johnson half-grudgingly hires Lisa, stating that she was “the only one knocking on this door.”

At the outset of her challenging responsibilities, Lisa quickly learns that earnestness and good intentions, along with a master’s degree in social work, are not sufficient to meet the needs of the four girls in her charge. Her initial meetings with three of the girls are testy and hostile, and the language the girls use would make sailors blush.

Three of the four girls are African-American and share a troubled and deeply scarred past. The fourth girl is a blonde, white teen named Eva-Lynn Fox, whose highly dysfunctional mother has given up on her and wants her out of their rural home in the Missouri bootheel.  

Eva-Lynn’s “Grandpappy” was a proud former leader of the local Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It is soon apparent to Lisa and her other three charges that Eva-Lynn has inherited the racism and anti-Semitism of her grandfather.

If the troubled background of the four girls was not enough to weigh down Lisa along with her marital difficulties, the GIFT House itself is plainly not a “gift.”  Paint and plaster are peeling inside and out.  The stairway leading to the porch and entrance is loose and dangerous, especially the middle step, from which the book derives its title.

As Lisa embarks on her extremely challenging journey with the four girls, who harshly reject her attempts to win them over, she and the girls learn much about themselves and how to get along.

Lisa is ultimately able to form her four rebellious charges into a virtual family in which she is the nurturing, caring mother.  She also is able to deal with her husband Nate’s fumbling efforts to reconcile with maturity and kindness.

Although this is Bogard’s first novel, she has considerable writing experience spanning 20 years in public relations and journalism (including a stint as associate editor at the Jewish Light).

The timing of “The Middle Step” is fortuitous as St. Louis continues, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the resulting uproar, to shine a light on racial tensions and inequality. The novel offers an encouraging case study of how patient and relentless efforts to form positive relationships across ethnic and religious lines can be successful.

“The Middle Step” is not only a good read. It is also a story of redemption and tikkun olam, which should serve to brighten our upcoming celebration of Hanukkah.