There’s been a lot of excitement leading up to the release of Nova Ren Suma’s latest young adult book, The Walls Around Us. It’s been out for almost a full week now, and I’ve been seeing more and more blurbs claiming that the book is this year’s “Orange is the New Black Swan.”
Well…yes and no.
The book is about three teenage girls and is told from two of those girls’ perspectives (one of whom is now speaking from beyond the grave): Amber, who is imprisoned at Amber Hills juvenile detention center for murdering her stepfather; Violet, a well-off eighteen-year-old ballerina about to start her bright future at Julliard; and Orianna — Ori — Violet’s former best friend and and fellow ballerina, a girl from the wrong side of town whose mother left her when she was seven and who only really has ballet going for her. Ori was sent to Aurora Hills three years ago for the murder of two of their ballet classmates.
Mostly set in New Mexico, the ten short stories in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s new book capture mesmerizing glimpses at the lives of outsiders. From deadbeat dads trying to make amends, to girls coming of age, to many a character trying to navigate race/class lines, the stories in this collection are heavily infused with Catholic, Mexican American, and New Mexican culture.
In the first story, “Nemecia,” a young girl’s life is completely turned upside down when her orphaned, emotionally manipulative cousin comes to live with them. The girl is moving in under violent circumstances: she was present when her mother and grandfather were both murdered. The girl is sweet and vulnerable around adults but can be cruel to her little cousin when no one is looking, going so far as to claim she was the murderer. It becomes clearer and clearer to the young girl which child is the more important one in their family.
In “The Five Wounds,” Amadeo Padilla is proud to be Jesus in that year’s recreation of the Passion. It’s a bloody event where he’ll have to carry a heavy cross and suffer as Jesus did, but Amadeo is eager to prove his machismo. The unannounced arrival of his pregnant teen daughter — whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship with — throws him off guard, and over the next couple of days, things happen that will become a much heavier symbolic cross for him to bear. This story was one of my favorites in the collection.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a major soft spot for pachyderms. All those news stories about violence against elephants kill me, so when I read the premise of Tania James’s new book, The Tusk that Did the Damage, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it would probably make me cry. Set in South India, The Tusk that Did the Damage weighs the costs of the ivory trade from three different perspectives: a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and a elephant whom locals fear and refer to as the Gravedigger.
The Gravedigger witnessed the murder of his mother when he was a young calf; he’s captured and sold into captivity and suffers PTSD-like symptoms for the rest of his life. He alternately nods or lashes out violently when he’s overcome by the memories, and most of the handlers who work for his owner liken those actions to those of a madman. Once the Gravedigger breaks free of captivity, he’s known for killing people and then burying them in the gentle way that elephants do (hence his name).
Nerdy D’aron Davenport has never truly felt like he belonged in his tiny hometown of Braggsville, Georgia. He bides his time in high school and sets his sights on getting as far from Braggsville as he can. He’s confident in his decision to attend UC Berkeley but quickly learns that being at the top of his class in Braggsville means little in a place like “Berzerkeley;” it’s a culture shock that leaves him feeling out of his element. Fortunately, he makes friends with three other students early on: Charlie, a Black teen from inner-city Chicago; Louis, a Malaysian comedian from San Francisco; and Candice, a hippie-ish white woman from Iowa who sometimes claims to be of Native American descent. After one of their earliest PC-policing encounters at Berkeley, the four end up calling themselves the “4 Little Indians.”
Coming from a tiny town in the South, the hyper-awareness with which liberal Berkeley students treat political correctness is at times mind-boggling to D’aron. Then, in a radical history class that’s been blowing his mind all semester, he volunteers some information that freaks everyone out: his town still holds Civil War reenactments every year. Suddenly, the 4 Little Indians have a class project on their hands. They’ll stage a “performative intervention” — aka a mock lynching, complete with slave costumes — at this year’s Braggsville reenactment. In their minds, it’s just the kind of protest that people need to see the error of their ways.
Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date first came on my radar towards the end of 2014; it was a finalist for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards in the humor category. By the age of 25, Heaney has had a lot of things: college degrees, a social life, general happiness…but no boyfriend. Ever (and not for lack of trying). The book’s subtitle is extremely misleading — she’s gone on plenty of dates, makeout sessions included, and was even in the unfortunate position of having of one potential boyfriend who kept stringing her along without committing — but Heaney has never been serious enough with anyone to consider having sex with them. Hers is a book about social and emotional awkwardness; her friends are always several steps ahead of her. They seem to intuitively know all of the rules.
At 35, Nicole Hardy was in a different place entirely. She was raised to be devoutly Mormon, and as a woman who had not yet married, she had also never had sex. Unlike Never Have I Ever, Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin grapples with some of life’s bigger questions, especially those relating to deeply held religious beliefs. Unlike Heaney, Hardy has dated. Quite a bit, in fact. The fact that she had to abstain from sex until marriage was never a question, but she did acknowledge her desires and seek out information. She even dated outside her religion, something that put her partially at odds with her faith (if she wanted to get married in a temple — which she did — she’d have to marry another Mormon). For a long time, especially in her twenties, she thought she could wait. As her twenties became her thirties, her natural sexual desires grew stronger, and she remained unmarried, that religiously-mandated waiting game started to become unbearable.
For all intents and purposes, these are two middle-class white women who both seem to have come from fairly stable middle-class backgrounds. They’re each dealing with different subject matter but are similar in that they’re late bloomers, so to speak, in one area of life that’s important to them.
But oh, what a difference a decade and some actual life experience makes.