May 02, 2016
What We Saw
What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler is a fictionalized portrayal of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case of 2012. We know what's to come in What We Saw. We have an idea of what will be seen, but we do not know the particulars. Hartzler builds tension by setting the scene and depicting his characters as ordinary popular school kids, not monsters.
Once we know the details of the rape of Stacey Stallard and the community-wide victim blaming that ensues, What We Saw develops into a shocking expose of brutality and indifference. Because of the graphic retelling of events, it is recommended for older teens. Hartzler's Iowa is a stand in for Ohio, but it could be any American town, from Pennsylvania to Texas, where sports are king.
Kate Weston is the ambivalent moral compass of the story. In general, I longed for more character development of all the characters, and though I understand his motives, I wish we could have gotten to know the survivor, Stacey Stallard and understand her experience firsthand. Too many of the tertiary characters blend together.
Kate agonizes over the cruel response to Stacey, her former friend. She is torn between loyalty to her boyfriend, teammates, and friends, and doing what is right. Ultimately, Kate's story is one of uneasy bravery. The way that Kate educates her younger brother (in the absence of their parents' moral instruction) about consent is powerful and avoids didacticism.
One of the best scenes of the book is when one of the accused says something victim blaming and the teacher, Mr. Johnston, commences a brainstorming session to come up with all the ways that boys can help, not harm a drunk girl. He concludes with, "Reggie, when you say that you 'can't help yourself' if a girl is wasted, that means something, too. You're saying that our natural state as men is 'rapist.'"
So many people in the story are complicit and afraid. They act out of personal interest. I like that Hartzler holds them responsible for failing to speak up and yet says they are not evil. He eschews easy judgment of the teens who mostly seem to lack moral guidance from the adults in their lives.
Hartzler has contributed to an important discussion on consent, social responsibility, public shaming in social media, and rape culture. What We Saw is a conversation starter; it shows an insider's view of the way news media investigates and disrupts a town in turmoil and the role of social media in shaping young people's attitudes and actions about girls.
For so long, the conversation about sexual assault has placed the onus on the victimized. It has taken a long time but finally there is a mainstream awareness of the importance of consent and preventing abuse by teaching boys not to abuse, rather than shaming girls for their dress and decisions to drink or travel alone.
April 22, 2016
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Exit, Pursued by a Bear, named after Shakespeare's most famous stage direction, from A Winter's Tale is set not in 17th Century Sicily, but in small-town Canada in the cheerleading subculture.
Hermione is a serious cheerleader entering her last year of high school, when she is drugged and raped at cheerleading camp. She doesn't know who did it, but what ensues is less of a mystery and more of an internal battle for healing and a celebration of strong female friendship.
While some readers think that E.K. Johnston sanitized sexual assault by making Hermione's support system so strong and depicting her assault as little as possible, I think that Johnston gets her message across without traumatizing the reader as much as she could, while also advocating feminism and positive female relationships.
Surely there are girls who have experiences similar to Hermione's and why not tell that story, too and not just the worst-case scenarios.
The scene with the newspaper reporter toward the story's end addresses the issue of slut shaming and the burden placed on girls to prevent attacks against them. Hermione's bestie Polly rants in response to the reporter, "You're okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn't think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?"
I don't want to give too much away about the content, but page 138 of this book is one of the most feminist things I've ever read in teen fiction.
Like Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, Courtney Summers' All the Rage and Aaron Hartzler's new What We Saw, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is an important book about sexual assault, about being broken and healed.
April 15, 2016
The Memory of Light
Many YA books are written about depression and suicide, but few are as honest and gripping a read as Francisco X. Stork's The Memory of Light. As Stork has shown in one of his previous books, Marcelo in the Real World, he is a writer who dives into moral quandaries, balancing concerns for self and other. Stork's writing is never condescending or insensitive and his moral compass as a writer never strays into didactic territory.
Stork avoids the potential pitfalls of romanticizing mental illness, promising quick and easy recovery, or minimizing the suffering that depressed teens experience. His writing is informed by his personal experience of his own depression in young adulthood, which is appended in an author's note. And as a Latino attorney who works in affordable housing, he brings knowledge to his book's discussion of class and Latino identity.
The relationship between Vicky and Mona is reminiscent of the dynamic between Susanna and Lisa in Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted. Mona is bipolar and gregarious, while Vicky is depressed and withdrawn. I appreciated that Vicky wasn't a hard character to like and that she didn't have secret pain; the plot didn't hinge on a dramatic reason for her depression, other than her mother's death which the reader knows about from the beginning.
As Vicky wisely says, "Depression can be a normal reaction to a life event, like my mother's death, or it can be a symptom of another physical illness, or even a side effect of drugs. But sometimes depression is in itself the illness -- an illness like any other illness, like the flu or the mumps."
The Memory of Light shows that individuals are complicated and recovery is not easy. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how Vicky struggles to understand her worth and her identity. While she has been fortunate to have been born into privilege, she does not fit in with her family of birth. She learns her strengths through belonging to her group of fellow sufferers in the hospital. Vicky learns that even though her father belittles her for not being Ivy-bound, she is brave and sensitive and skilled at hard work.