Lists of Nominees
Documents to Print

Discussion Module

Nothing to Lose
Alex Flinn

Publishing Information: HarperTempest: New York, 2004
ISBN: 0060517506
: 288 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

A year after running away with a traveling carnival to escape his unbearable home life, sixteen-year-old Michael returns to Miami, Florida, to find that his mother is going on trial for the murder of his abusive step-father.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Battered Women
Carnival Workers
Emotional Abuse
Family Violence
Fate vs. Free Will
Legal System
Runaway Teenagers
Secret Identities

Awards & Reviews:
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2005
YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2005

BookList, March 15, 2004, p. 1299
School Library Journal, March 2004, p. 210

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. Kirstie says Michael's problem is "not knowing whether to be loyal to someone else, or to yourself." How does this issue of loyalty come to play in the book? Does Michael eventually resolve it? How?
  2. Kirstie tells Michael, "Sometimes you have to help yourself because that's the only one you can help." Do you agree or disagree? How might Kirstie's past family experiences have shaped her opinion?  
  3. Why does Michael feel he can't talk to his friends about the problems at home, but considers telling Karpe? Is Michael's concern reasonable? What would have happened if Michael had told Tristan?
  4. To what extent does Michael's relationship with Kirstie affect the other events of the book? How do you think things would have been different if he'd never gone to the fair?
  5. Why is Michael attracted to Kirstie? How does she differ from other women he knows - for example, his mother? By contrast, what do you think attracts Kirstie to Michael? Why does she care what he does?
  6. Michael initially views the carnies as freaks, but then feels part of them, more than with his own friends. What is the cause of this change of heart? Have you ever fantasized about running away to a different kind of world? What do you think it would be like?
  7. Kirstie has a very fatalistic view of life (Whatever will happen, will happen). Is she right? Does she change this view in the course of the book?
  8. The court finds Michael's killing of Walker to be justifiable homicide based upon Michael's statement that he believed that Walker was about to kill Lisa and he used reasonable (though deadly) force to prevent the death. Without this belief, the killing would not be justified. Is this a good law? Should Michael have been justified in killing Walker under these circumstances?Should he have been justified even if the risk of death was not immediate but eventual ?
  9. The defense Lisa planned to use at trial, battered spouse syndrome, is based upon the battered spouse's evidence that she was in such fear of the victim that she had no means of escape other than killing him. This defense does not require that the killer have been attacked at the time of the killing. Would Lisa have been successful in this defense? Did she have no means of escape? Do you think battered spouse syndrome is a good defense?
  10. In the last chapter, Michael says, "Maybe everyone you meet - people at school, people you wouldn't suspect - has something in the back of their lives, something bad they don't talk about and just know is there. Maybe we're all like the carnies, but maybe we don't all run. Maybe some people stay there and deal with it." Do you think Michael will "stay and deal with" the aftermath of his actions? Where do you see him in two years?

Legal Issues in Nothing to Lose :
Nothing to Lose contains many legal dilemmas which make this a great read for a high school "pre-legal" class. The author is an attorney who carefully researched these issues and consulted with a Miami-Dade County Assistant State Attorney in preparing the book. Here is a guide to some issues in Nothing to Lose. This guide assumes that the person reading the guide has already read the book as it contains spoilers.

  • Attorney-client privilege. When Angela takes Michael on as a client, she agrees that she will not reveal information that he gives her in order for her to represent him. This privilege exists even though Michael is a pro bono (Latin for "for the public benefit" i.e., non-paying) client of Angela's law firm. Attorney-client privilege dates back to Elizabethan times and was based upon the concept that a client should be able to reveal any information necessary for the attorney to represent the client. There are exceptions to attorney-client privilege. In some jurisdictions, an attorney has the right to reveal confidential client information if such disclosure will prevent substantial physical harm to a third person. Some jurisdictions extend this further, giving an attorney the right to disclose confidential client information if disclosure is necessary to prevent substantial injury to the financial interests or property of third persons. Many jurisdictions, including Florida (where the book takes place) have an ethical rule (the crime-fraud exception) that requires an attorney to disclose confidential client information to a court when it is necessary in order to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by the client.

Questions to consider: Did Angela comply with the legal requirements of attorney-client privilege? Was she obligated to report Michael under the crime-fraud exception? Would it have been different if Michael had told her he killed Walker? Would it have been different if the killing had not been justifiable homicide?

  • Battered Spouse Syndrome. The defense Lisa planned to use at trial, battered spouse syndrome. Similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, often suffered by veterans) battered spouse syndrome, is based upon the battered spouse's evidence that she was in such fear of the victim that she had no means of escape other than killing him. This defense does not require that the killer have been attacked at the time of the killing. Rather, it requires the defendant to prove that she was a battered spouse and that she was in a constant, heightened state of fear for her life and that she felt there was no escape from the abuser. She must also show that they were living together in an intimate relationship and that the abuser had abused her on more than one occasion. This proof satisfies the element of fear for her life in a self-defense defense.  

Questions to consider: Would Lisa have been successful in this defense? Did she have no means of escape?

  • Defenses to Murder/Justifiable Homicide. Other than battered spouse syndrome, which was the defense Lisa was using, there are other defenses to murder which come into play in the book. The first is self-defense. In the self-defense defense, someone shows that the killer was attacked first by the victim and was in fear for his/her life and, therefore, used reasonable force to prevent further attack. The battered spouse syndrome defense comes from the self-defense defense except that with battered spouse syndrome, the necessity that the victim have been attacked at the time of the killing is eliminated due to the history of abuse between the parties. With self-defense, there must have been an attack and fear before force is justified. Therefore, if someone is coming at you with a knife, you can shoot them or whatever else it takes to keep from being killed. Also, the force used must be reasonable and not excessive in light of the attack. If someone is hitting you with a pillow, you can't shoot them. However, if the victim is reasonably in fear for his/her life, he or she can use deadly force in self-defense. Also, if the accused proves that he was defending but used excessive force, he might be convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder. In truth, Lisa could have used this defense in her trial against Walker, if she had actually been the one who killed him. He was choking her, and if she had been the one who hit him with the fireplace poker, she would have been justified in so doing. Even though he was only hitting her with his hands, the law would allow her to use deadly force because she was probably reasonably in fear for her life. However, the evidence showed that Walker was hit from behind (because Michael hit him, and not Lisa). This makes it seem like Lisa was not being attacked at the time of Walker's death, which is why she was attempting to rely on battered spouse syndrome. The defense that actually worked was defense of others. Defense of others is similar to self-defense except that it is with another person. If someone reasonably believes that another person is in danger of being killed, they can use reasonable force to prevent the death. This was the case in Michael's killing of Walker. He walked in on what was apparently Walker using deadly force against his mother, choking her, knocking her head against a stone wall. If the case had gone to trial, he could even have testified about the runner being ripped, leading to his feeling that Walker was angrier than usual. The force Michael used was reasonable, though it was deadly. Walker was strong. Michael had been hit by him himself. So when Walker was hurting Lisa, Michael reasonably grabbed the weapon that was at his disposal and did what was reasonably necessary to stop what was happening. Though it is possible that Michael could have used his hands, the law would not find that Michael's use of the fireplace poker constituted excessive force.

Questions to consider: Which defense was finally used by Michael? Why did Lisa use Battered Spouse Syndrome, rather than Defense of Others? Was the force Michael used reasonable or excessive?

  • Michael leaving the Scene. With Lisa on trial for murder, Michael was worried about having charges brought against him for leaving the scene. If Lisa was, indeed, found guilty of murder, Michael might have been tried as an accessory after the fact for destroying evidence of the murder (washing his clothes) and not offering testimony he was capable of offering. However, as the court found there was no murder (It was a justifiable homicide), there could be no lesser offenses related to the murder either.  

Questions to consider: Was Michael guilty of anything because he failed to tell what happened?

  • The money! Walker was a very wealthy man, and upon his death, Lisa probably stood to inherit his money (This is why everyone thought she killed him). He might have had a will that left it to her. If he didn't have a will, law in most states, including Florida where the book takes place, would give his wife all his money, if he had no children (Michael doesn't count because he was only Lisa's son). Even if Walker, philanthropist that he was, decided to make a will, leaving all the money to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Lisa would be entitled to her Spouse's Statutory Share or "forced share in many states, including Florida. This law provides that the spouse is entitled to one-third of all the property on the other spouse's death no matter who the property was willed to. The only way Lisa wouldn't have been entitled to the money would be if she signed a prenuptial agreement, giving up her rights to this forced share. While it is likely that Lisa signed a prenup (She was a poor secretary, marrying a wealthy lawyer, and Walker wasn't stupid!), it is more likely that Lisa gave up the right to the money on divorce (which is why she and Michael would have been poor if she left Walker) and less likely that she gave up her inheritance rights because it doesn't seem like Walker had any family other than Lisa.

OR ....

  • The other way Lisa would not have been entitled to the money would be (Big surprise!) if it was found that she murdered Walker. If you murder someone, the law usually provides that the murderer cannot inherit from the victim. This discourages people, presumably, from killing someone so that they can get the victim's money and give it to their family after they go to jail. Before the trial, Lisa could petition the court to get some of Walker's money to pay her attorney. The court might refuse if they thought she wasn't entitled to the money because she was likely to be convicted. If this happened, Lisa would be entitled to a Public Defender, since she would have no money to afford another lawyer.

Questions to consider:   What happened to the money? Is Lisa entitled to it? What would have happened to the money if Lisa was convicted 1) If Walker had a will or 2) If he didn't?

(Legal issues guide written by Alex Flinn, Copyright by the author)

The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer by Gary Paulsen, 2000 (2001 RITBA Nominee)
The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci, 2000 (2001 RITBA Nominee)
Double Helix by Nancy Werlin, 2004 (2006 RITBA Nominee)
Dunk by David Lubar, 2002
Ghost Boy
by Iain Lawrence, 2000
The Last Chance Texaco
by Brent Hartinger, 2005
The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, 2001
See You Down the Road by Kim Ablon Whitney, 2004
Something Wicked This Way Comes
by Ray Bradbury, 1983
You Don't Know Me
by David Klass, 2001

Other Books by the Author:
Breathing Underwater, 2001 (2002 RITBA Nominee)
Breaking Point, 2002 (2004 RITBA Nominee)
Fade to Black, 2005

About the Author:
From the age of five, Alexandra Flinn always knew she would be an author. Of course, there were some interesting detours along the way. She was a music major in college who sang opera before heading to law school. Alex's first novel, Breathing Underwater, deals with the topic of dating violence and was based on her experiences interning with the State Attorney's Office and volunteering with battered women. It was well received and Alex followed with a second novel, Breaking Point , about school violence and peer pressure. In Nothing to Lose, a story of family violence leading to murder, Alex again draws on her legal background and work with domestic violence victims. Her fourth book, Fade to Black, deals with a hate crime against an HIV-positive student, and is written from three viewpoints: the victim's, the accused perpetrator's, and a witness's.

Alex Flinn lives in a suburb of Miami with her husband, Gene, and two daughters, Katie and Meredith. She enjoys traveling to schools and speaking to students about writing and her books.  

Courtesy of TeenReads ( and Alex Flinn's web site (

Alex Flinn on her writing: Because I am a lawyer, my books usually revolve around the legal system, and in this age of CSI and Law and Order and Boston Legal, this appeals to a lot of teens. On the other hand, I definitely get the "Why do teens have to read such unsettling books?" comment from some adults, and my answer is always, "They don't have to, but some of them want to." My books, by nature of their subject matter, have strong plots -- there's something happening at all times. Many teens are really attracted to that aspect of the book, or with the "ripped from the headlines" feel of the plots, or they just identify with what the characters are going through. A lot of teens today are dealing with some pretty heavy problems, and I think my books are helpful in either letting them know that there are others who are going through the same types of thing, or maybe letting them know that their problems aren't as bad as they could be.

Read the full interview with Alex Flinn at (an excellent site for reviews and news about young adult fiction.)

| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair