Saturday, November 29, 2014

I don't care which award you've won, or who you are...

... because I don't tolerate unacceptable language and cultural appropriation in the books I enjoy.

As the de facto Teen Librarian (technically I'm a Youth Services Librarian, but I love YA lit and I really love working with teens, so I'm like the Teen-In-All-But-Name Librarian), it's my professional duty to keep up with teen lit.  Although I don't generally agree with Big Award Decisions, it's important for me to know who won what when and for what (how's that for a tongue-twister?).  This is crucial for booktalking without seeming like an idiot.

I was really surprised when Nick Lake's In Darkness won the Printz two years ago.  I'd never even heard of it--or him.  I've noticed a trend in award winners--they often deal with at-the-time-hot-button topics or controversial issues.  For example, I thought The One and Only Ivan was fine, but it was obviously going to win the Newbery because it was about a gorilla with feelings, and award committees can't resist the whole inhumanity-of-humanity angle.  In Darkness is a dual-narrative featuring a boy trapped under rubble after the Haitian earthquake and a parallel account of Toussaint L'Ouverture.  I'm sure the committee saw Haiti+earthquake and said, "Right.  That one."

Before you all call me out on being callous and horrid, please know that I care very deeply about what happened in Haiti.  A very good friend of mine was in the position to go over there for relief work.  It's very important to me to support disaster zones around the world; however, I'm not always comfortable with films, music, or books that seem to capitalize on disaster.  If they are bringing attention to a heretofore unknown situation, that's different.  But, I personally don't like reading books that use hot-button issues as the basis of their literary hook.


Okay, with all that out of the way (honestly, I could probably just delete it and no one would care, but it's part of my review process), why didn't I like There Will Be Lies?  There are three main reasons:
  1. Unhealthy and dangerous body talk
  2. Cultural appropriation of Native American beliefs
  3. The book would have been just fine as a thriller without dragging points 1 and 2 into the story
As someone with BDD and EDNOS (currently doing well, but it's like alcoholism in that it never *goes away* and you're never *cured*), I'm extremely sensitive to the way authors talk about bodies in their books.  Now, I understand if you are writing a character who is a dudebro frat boy, he's going to say some stupid and offensive stuff.  However, when a character's worth is directly tied to their size or body shape, I put that all on the author.

So, this is what Shelby Jane Cooper (isn't that a gee-aw-shucks name?) thinks about her mother:
"Mom hauls her ass out of th eeasy chair, goes to the hall and pulls on a coat over her T-shirt and PAJAMA JEANS, and I'm putting that in all caps now in case you didn't pick up on my subliminal referencing of her PAJAMA JEANS earlier.  Also, in case it wasn't obvious when I talked about her hauling her ass, she is not the slimmest, whereas I am naturally athletic, and this makes the pajama jeans look even worse."
What a sweet girl!  But wait, there's more!  "It's almost like she WANTS to look like a loser, so you know, shrug."  Shelby Jane Cooper, I am going to smack you.  But that might make you look bad.  Just like when you stand with your mom: "It's just, she likes like a loser RIGHT NEXT TO ME."

Okay, so you claim you love your mom, but she embarrasses you by her weight and her choice in fashion, and this is mostly because you care more about yourself than about anyone else in the universe.  As far as she's concerned, "Shelby Jane" is the name of the center of the universe.  As they walk, Shelby can only note how "Mom is mainly trying to shake it by walking surprisingly fast down the street, her ass rippling her, ahem, pajama jeans."  Whereas Miss Shelby Jane is "five-five.  One hundred pounds.  Athletic, you could say."

Yeah, it's totally possible that a teenage girl is 5'5 and 100lbs, but she would be extremely small.  I don't get the whole "athletic" thing being thrown around here.  Shelby wouldn't be super muscular, but it's still a realistic thing.  However, what makes me really uncomfortable is how casual she is throwing numbers around.  Girls will read that and think, "Omigod, I'm 5'5 and I weigh 130lbs--am I fat?  I need to go on a diet!"  Seriously.  Shelby's also the kind of girl who can eat as muuuuuch ice cream as she wants and not gain weight, while she simultaneously fat-shames her mother for doing the same thing.

I don't care if Lake wanted to portray her as an unsympathetic character.  There are ways of doing that that aren't offensive and dangerous.

Aside from all of the body issues, there's also the issue with the appropriation of Native American culture.  Basically, Coyote is Shelby's protector (I suppose someone working at Urban Outfitters would say "spirit guide") and she goes dreamwalking and has to fight the Crone and save the Child and eat people's hearts and stuff.  She visits ruins of the Perry Mesa culture (we don't know what these people called themselves, and so academics have bestowed upon them this name) and feels like the petroglyphs "resonate" with her.  What a speshul snowflake.

At its core, this is actually a mystery/thriller, but you wouldn't know that until about halfway through.  There's all this snarky talking and then ominous foreshadowing and then "Hey, let's step sideways into the Dreaming!" and I can't even with this.  A DinĂ© woman, for example, would  obviously have differing spiritual beliefs from a Blackfoot woman.  I am not an expert on this in any way, but I do recognize that this romanticization of a culture's stories or beliefs should not be something you add to a book to make it more interesting.  I tweeted Debbie Reese, whom I greatly respect, about this issue, and she said to ask the author if he would do the same thing with the Bible.  If we treat some religions as mythologies, then treat all of them as mythologies.  Would this have been so "cool" had the main character been, I don't know, in heaven with Jesus?  I think a lot of people would have been up in arms about that.  But this New Age-y thing is widely accepted, unfortunately.

To be honest, I didn't read, in detail, the whole thing.  I was so disgusted that I ended up skimming a lot, so I may have missed more offensive subject matter.

When I made it to the end, the only thing I could rationalize was that Lake tossed in all of this fake "spiritual" stuff to disguise the fact that the thriller part of the book was fine, but not groundbreaking.

The three main book reviews on our book ordering platform, PW, Kirkus, and Booklist, all praise this book as an exploration of identity and trust with an "alternate world drawn from Native American mythologies" (Publishers Weekly).  Before I started blogging and critically analyzing books from a librarian's perspective, I probably wouldn't have thought much about the Native American aspects of this book.  I probably would have just said, "Well, this is weird."  However, this all feels like Lake (who's British) wanted to add some pizzazz to the story so he said, "Oh, I'll toss in some Coyote tales and call it Navajo.  That's ... diverse, right?"  No.

This whole book is one big no.

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.

No comments:

Post a Comment