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.
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.
Years of hard work are about to pay off for Richard and Ann. Richard is a chef who’s just weeks away from opening his own restaurant in Los Angeles with his business partner, Javi, a hotshot chef with a flair for culinary experimentation. Ann is also on the brink of professional success. She’s a cutthroat lawyer at a big firm and thinks the time has finally arrived for her to make partner. For years, she’s put in long hours and tried to succeed not only to rise through the ranks of the firm, but to support her husband as he paid his dues. It’s taken a personal toll — she doesn’t even like being a lawyer — but both of them know that the restaurant will give them a new type of freedom.
Overnight, thanks to Javi’s unscrupulous actions, their dream crumbles and they find themselves flying to an island in the middle of the South Pacific to get away from all their troubles. They wind up on a remote atoll run by Loren, a drunken Frenchman. For a couple thousand a day, they get an upgraded Robinson Crusoe experience: a small private hut with no electricity, phone, or internet connection. The only other people of significance on the island are Titi and Cooked, two locals who are betrothed to one another and run the daily operations; Dex Cooper, the aging frontman of the rock band Prospero; and Wende, Dex’s young and attractive muse.
“Mama, are you a virgin?”
When readers first meet Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, she’s an innocent Black girl growing up in 1960s Southside Chicago. In the early 1960s, when Stevie is still young enough to do as she’s told without question, she soaks in a lot of different messages about her culture and the way she looks: her hair should be straightened and she mustn’t speak in her peers’ casual vernacular. She gets a little older, and now there are skin lightening creams to consider (there’s also that saying, “coffee will make you black,” to keep kids away from the beverage: the last thing anyone wants to be is dark-skinned). Her mother is strict and religious, intent on keeping her daughter as sheltered as possible so that she can have a shot at moving up in the world; there’s little room for Stevie to explore ideas on her own terms.
Stevie doesn’t have any friends, but when miscommunication occurs and she naively admits to something, she suddenly has the attention of two popular girls that her mother doesn’t approve of. This is the first step in Stevie’s coming-of-age story. The rest is set against a backdrop of rapid social change and political awareness; Stevie and her peers get to experience the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in middle and high school. It’s a nightmare Stevie’s straightlaced mother, who cannot wrap her head around all these radical ideas floating around in her daughter’s head, but it’s an important part of Stevie’s life. Suddenly, Black is beautiful.