The entire tone of The Rules of Survival is a little bit of darkness and a whole lot of no-nonsense honesty. After all, it's told from the perspective of Matthew Walsh, who has lived through some difficult family times with his abusive mother, Nikki. He can't exactly be all sunshine and animal crackers when he's talking about how his mother came after him with a knife for eating an Oreo:
She had the big kitchen knife, and it was pressed to my throat. And as she laughed, I could feel it shake in her hands, and push against my skin.
She cut me that night. Just a little.
Just to teach me not to steal, and not to sneak. (2.7-9)
Matthew tells the whole story unflinchingly and without sparing any details. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. Why should he? He knows that this is how the world works… and the gritty tone of the book reflects his point of view.
Things are as dramatic in the Walsh household as they get. Nikki, the Walsh family matriarch, is basically a drama-producing machine and makes life pretty difficult for her kids. She is constantly abusing them—both verbally and physically—and much of the story revolves around her children's desire to get away from her. Things get even more complicated when Nikki loses custody and basically goes insane, becoming intent on ruining everyone else's lives in revenge. Without Nikki, we pretty much have no story here, so this is definitely family drama.
In the midst of all this chaos, The Rules of Survival is also about Matthew and Callie growing up. When the story opens, they're both young teenagers, and over the course of the next couple years, they come to realize that they don't always have to listen to Nikki or do exactly what she says. They can dream bigger for their future—and imagine a life without their abusive mother.
Eventually, Callie and Matthew take different routes. She goes to stay with her father, where she can study science and medicine, and Matthew takes care of Emmy and Aunt Bobbie, eventually getting into college. But while their paths diverge, they both grow into their own confident, successful people, with absolutely no help from Nikki.
The Rules of Survival is an apt description of the kind of rules that Matthew, Callie, and Emmy must internalize as they grow up with their abusive mother, Nikki. In order to survive Nikki's wrath, Matthew and his siblings have to figure out ways to behave that won't set Nikki off and turn her on them.
Because he's grown up like this all his life, Matthew is shocked that anyone else—especially his sister Callie—would think of anything but just surviving out one day after another. When he finds her doodles with a "doctor" in front of her name, he's awed by her hopes for the future:
Dr. Callie McIlvane.
That was when I understood that Callie dreamed bigger than I ever dared. I only wanted us to survive. (10.10-11)
As the story progresses, the kids are taken away from Nikki and embraced by adults who really love and care about them. It's only when they are taken out of their traumatizing childhood home that they can think past the rules of survival and just live out their lives… you know, the way kids are supposed to.
At the very end of The Rules of Survival, Matthew reveals that though the letter addresses Emmy, he's actually been writing it to himself this whole time. She'll never even read it:
So. Emmy. Little sister. You're never going to read this, are you? I'm never going to give it to you. I didn't write it for you. I wrote it for me.
I wrote it to work my way through the story of what formed me. (E.1-2)
But does this mean that telling this long, painful story was all for nothing? Not at all. Matthew knows that it has been valuable to write down this whole story because doing so has helped him work through all of his complicated, raw feelings, to understand what's happened to him and, in doing so, to be able to move past it.
And that's priceless.
Ah, Boston—the home of fine institutions of learning and ruby red lobsters. The entirety of The Rules of Survival is set in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Walsh kids have grown up their whole lives. The setting isn't all that important, though, since there is very little discussion of the city or its landmarks. Instead, it's Nikki's larger than life presence that frames everything. The kids are pretty much confined to wherever Nikki takes them… and the fact that they happen to be in Boston hardly matters.
The Rules of Survival isn't the kind of book that's bogged down by flowery language and difficult-to-follow syntax… but it isn't for the inexperienced young reader, either. The book may have deceptively simple language, but the topics tackled within are for readers with a stronger stomach. As it's told from Matthew Walsh's perspective, the story spares no details in portraying Nikki Walsh and all of her terrible behavior and abuse. It's hard to read about how she abuses and mistreats her children, and so readers should go in prepared for some frightening scenes.
The writing style of The Rules of Survival is epistolary because it's told in the form of a long, confessional letter to Matthew's youngest sister, Emmy. According to Matthew, Emmy may not remember many details from their former life, so he's putting it down on paper so that she can read about their past when she's older:
I need to try and turn the experience into something valuable for you, and for myself—not just something to be pushed away and forgotten. (P.4)
Matthew goes into deep detail so that Emmy can learn about everything that happened. This is a long, in-depth explanation of their family's history… and how it's affected them all.
There is plenty of discussion in The Rules of Survival about people falling victim to their demons. This is especially relevant when Matthew talks about his mother—much as she's a horrible person, in retrospect he feels like she cannot help her behavior. She's drawn to doing awful, abusive things because she has these "demons" that live inside of her:
I believe that I could and should have known about the demons that were on the borderline of ruling our mother. I had actually seen something in her eyes and felt some force in the air around her for many years. (19.5)
These demons aren't the kinds that show up in The Exorcist, of course. They are just Nikki's own personal issues and personality traits coming up to surface. She cannot control her more erratic and violent urges… even when she tries to. Matthew understands this about her, though it doesn't mean that he can forgive or even love her. As much as her children are victims of Nikki's demons, then, she is a victim of them, too.
Matthew, Callie, and Emmy have grown up in the same house all of their lives. That's because it's a house that's been passed down through their family, and now it's co-owned by Nikki and her sister, Aunt Bobbie. Because they both own it, the sisters have split up the house so that they live in separate apartments.
This separation represents their emotional distance from each other as well. Aunt Bobbie stays in her side of the apartment and doesn't venture into Nikki's domain, even when she knows that the kids might be abused or neglected. She feels like it's not her place to walk into Nikki's part of the house and intervene.
But when Aunt Bobbie realizes that it is her job as an adult to keep the kids safe, the separation within the house becomes a little blurrier. When Nikki goes to jail for a few days during Christmas break, Aunt Bobbie breaks down the barriers in the house:
The doors of Aunt Bobbie's apartment, and of ours, were thrown open, and the two floors felt like one big space, one big house. The college kids who rented the first-floor apartment had all left for the holidays, and so we felt completely free in that house in a way we never had before. (35.3)
The breaking down of the physical barriers in the house is mirrored by the breaking down of emotional barriers between Aunt Bobbie and the children. When she starts to open up her apartment to them, she becomes a guardian figure and someone that the kids can rely on for help—as well as for shelter. Her home is on its way to becoming theirs, too.
The narration in this book is a little unusual in that it busts out the second person narration style, directly addressing Emmy, while also heavily featuring first person narration, too, since the book is basically one long letter from Matthew to his youngest sister. Every time you see the word you, know it's Matthew speaking directly to Emmy. Every time you see an I, though, well, he's referring to himself. As for the central bit, Matthew's the heart of this entire book, hanging out at the center of the chaos as it swirls around him.
In the opening chapters of the book, we see that things are not going well in the Walsh household—not now, and pretty much not ever. Nikki, the mother, is abusive and unpredictable, and her three kids—Matthew, Callie, and Emmy—are left to fend for themselves much of the time. When Matthew and Callie see a man named Murdoch defending a kid who is being abused at a grocery store, they fall a little bit in love with this stranger.
Things start to get a little better—or at least more interesting—when Nikki meets Murdoch and starts dating him. For a while, things are looking up a bit, and the kids are happy because Murdoch is great, and because having him around keeps Nikki in check. But eventually, her bad behavior starts to show through, and Murdoch dumps Nikki. At which point she really loses it. Nikki starts to put the kids in dangerous situations, and Matthew desperately tries to figure out how they can live somewhere else. Maybe they can go to stay with their father, Ben?
Things really start to come to a head when Nikki insists on stalking Murdoch after the break-up. She reaches the apex of her revenge strategy when she convinces some dudes to go beat Murdoch up, and when that doesn't work, she has her new dude beat her up so that she can go to the police and claim that Murdoch assaulted her. So many ughs. Nikki's basically turned into a super-villain who is out to destroy the whole wide world. And she finally does hurt someone when she crashes into Julie—Murdoch's neighbor—and paralyzes her.
Because of this, Nikki has to go to jail and loses custody of the kids. It's definitely the point of no return.
Afterward, things are better, but they're not entirely and neatly resolved yet. Aunt Bobbie and Ben—Matthew and Callie's father—take on joint custody of the kids, and the living arrangement is confusing for Emmy. One day, Nikki kidnaps Emmy from her school and disappears for days with her. Matthew eventually tracks her down and almost kills her in the process, but Murdoch shows up to stop him from doing something that he will regret. After this incident, Nikki disappears and the kids never see her again. Good riddance.
In the end, the Walsh kids are able to move on with their lives. After Nikki disappears, they all settle into their new homes, where they finally feel safe and loved. Two years later, Callie is still living with Ben and excelling academically, whereas Matthew lives with Aunt Bobbie and Emmy and is getting ready to go to college in the fall.
At the very end, Matthew gets some closure when he talks to Murdoch, who admits that he was once an abused child and that he killed his own father to get away. He didn't want Matthew to have to go through the same thing, and just wants him to go on with his life and follow his dreams.