"When My Heart Was Wicked" Fails in a Tangle of Cultural Appropriation and General Strangeness

The cover was what did it for me with this one.  I said "Ooooo!" and snatched it up at ALA Midwinter.  Plus, it looked short, which would give me a good break from Thomas Hardy (oy).

I'm trying to sort through my ARCs and decide which ones I want to read right away, which ones will go to my teens at work as prizes, and which ones are gifts.  I thought that the size of When My Heart Was Wicked, coupled with the intriguing title, would make it a cool prize.  Since it was short (under two hundred pages in ARC format) and I was sick all weekend (hooray! not really), I decided to read it.

To be fair, I am glad that I read it.  Note that I said "glad," not "happy."  I am not happy with the cultural appropriation in the book, or the bizarre and haphazard use of magic, or the trying-too-hard prose, or the strangely blasé treatment of rape.  I ended up dog-earing almost every other page because I found something odd or offensive or just plain mind-boggling (and not in a good way).

At its core, When My Heart Was Wicked is a story about the complicated relationship that a daughter has with her mother.  That's all well and good.  But the book doesn't go far enough: it reads more like an outline than a finished novel.

Lacy lives with her stepmother, Anna, in Chico.  Anna's kind of a hippie type--says there's magic in everything.  It's also a *big deal* that she's a vegetarian and eats tofu everything (newsflash!  You do not have to eat only tofu to be veggie!  Beans!  Legumes!  Seeds!).  The twist here (I suppose) is that Lacy and Anna are really close, more like best friends than mom and daughter.  She has her friends, Shell and Mechelle (I swear to Cthulhu I am not making up!), and her crush, Zach.  We don't learn anything about these people except their names and that they are Lacy's friends.  Woo.

Lacy's also into science, which is pretty cool.  She loves chemistry and how equations make the world work.  Interestingly, she also believes in magic and casting spells, and is somewhat of an herbalist.  She gathers herbs by the stream and reminisces about the magical things she could have learned from the Maidu people.  Here's a wonderfully romanticized quote:
"Over two hundred years ago, the Maidu Indians lived right here along this creek in their houses made of bark.  I think about them, the Maidu, and how much they knew about the natural world.  Soap plant and sweet Indian potatoes, deer grass and yerba santa.  They were immune to poison oak, so they cooked their bread in the leaves and wove the branches of the poison oak into baskets ... I wish a real live Maidu woman would come out of the bushes and teach me.  We'd weave a basket to carry sorrow for all the old ways that are gone, and then another one to carry hope."
Well, my face is bruised from slamming my hands into it in frustration so many times.  I am by no means an expert on indigenous peoples of California, or Maidu culture, or any of that, but it's just that fairy tale "wheeee magical Indians" concept that really grates on me.  Native people do not exist to give you, Lacy, knowledge of plants.  I'm pretty sure they don't hide in bushes, either, waiting to bestow wisdom upon people deemed worthy.

The Konkow Valley Band of Maidu maintains a website (which seems to be in the process of updating, but this link should still work.  Here the tribe (which is the word the Maidu use in their Constitution, so I'll use it too) announces their meeting schedules and talk about their cultural history. They state that the Maidu make coiled baskets either out of willow or redbud bark  I didn't see anything in there about poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) or from the Maidu, referring to some sort of natural immunity, as is implied by Lacy.  This article, which discusses the resurgence of poison oak in the Bay Area, admits that accounts of Maidu or Chumash "immunity" to poison oak could be attributed to "miscommunication."  Or it could be bias on the part of the white interviewer.  I'd be really interested if anyone knows anything more about this.

The Mechoopda Maidu, whose land is what is now Chico (where Lacy first lives), state that the "ancestral village of Mechoopda" was composed of "primarily round, earth-covered structures" as homes.  Not bark.

Also, the whole thing about "a real live Maidu woman?"  Uh, the Maidu still exists as groups and tribes and functions and has government and everything!  Again, you can't just invoke the mystical indigenous people fairy to make your protagonist, I don't know, edgier?

On her blog American Indians in Children's Literature, Debbie Reese discusses and corrects stereotypical and incorrect portrayals of Native people in literature (specifically for kids and teens).  I have learned a LOT from reading this blog, but I am in no way an expert in this sort of criticism.  However, reading it has made me a much more critical reviewer when it comes to the treatment of Native content.  For example, as a teen, I thought that Francesca Lia Block's book Weetzie Bat was IT.  Block's writing style is so very different that it completely captivated me, and I was, honestly, sadly ignorant of the racist things said in the book.  I've only read that one and Witch Baby, but I don't remember much about them other than that it was the writing that caught me.  That does not excuse the author from using headdresses as costume material for Weetzie or anything of that nature, and I was impressed by Reese's critique of Block's work.  I certainly won't think of it in the same way again, and I'll be sure to bring those issues up if a teen ever asks me about the books.  Anyway, all of this is to say that I think that the author was trying to mimic Block's style and ended up absorbing and regurgitating the cultural appropriation as well.

Hey, why doesn't Lacy want to live with her mom, Cheyenne (I am not making this up), anyway?  Cheyenne waits to take her "home" to Sacramento "dressed like some sort of Indian princess rock star--jean shorts, fringy black vest, suede boots, and a few hunk of turquoise dangling from leather straps in her hair."  It's 2015.  I shouldn't have to point out that "Indian princess" is not a "thing" or a "style" or a "scene."  

ANYWAY.  That wasn't the only thing that I found problematic with the novel.  Let's look at some more (warning: spoilers ahead)!

So, Lacy goes back to Sacramento with her mom, whom she insists on calling "Cheyenne."  It's not a good place in her memory.  It's where they lived with junkies and where Cheyenne abandoned Lacy when she was younger.  Sitting in the apartment eating canned food, Lacy's devotion to her mother twisted into something dark and bitter.  Now, Lacy blames all of her past nastiness on her mother--it's the badness of her mother that brings out the wickedness in her.  It also doesn't help that her mother casts magical spells on people and practices dark magic in the back yard.

I am not making this up either.  See, the first time Lacy talks about casting a protective spell in her room, I thought it was a metaphor or something.  Then I realized this was supposed to be serious, so I went back and reread it.  This idea that there are magical incantations in the world just doesn't fit with the rest of the story as seamlessly as it should.  Instead of something mysterious, the "spells" are described with such newspaper astrology column terms that they become laughable.  

Cheyenne really wants to keep Lacy.  How to keep your daughter against her will?  Drug her with opium tea that was grown from her heart that you ripped out and buried in the ground!  I am not making this up either.  Lacy literally goes through the whole book saying, "I don't have a heartbeat.  I'm so cold.  I'm tired" and we, the readers, are supposed to believe that this is because her mother magically removed her heart and buried it in the backyard under a poppy.  This is fifty shades of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Lacy goes through the horror of going to a new high school.  Right away, we establish the pecking order.  Olive is the queen bee, and she's showing off her new tattoo before class: "It's a Taino symbol for sun ... It's tribal.  Ancient people would say this tattoo puts me closer to the gods."  The Taíno people lived in the Carribean, not in California, but as a people, they died after the Spanish landed and started enslaving them and spreading disease.  Olive isn't supposed to be a particularly sympathetic character, but I'm unsure why this whole exchange about appropriating a lost culture's religion is even included.  

Lacy catches the eye of local hottie Drake, and reconnects with her old neighbor Martin, who is once mentioned to be gay and then that's dropped like a hot potato.  There's a very strange storyline where Lacy and Drake get really involved and he reads her some Rimbaud (WARNING BELLS LACY.  DO YOU HEAR THEM???) that she thinks is soooo romantic and telling her how pretty she is.  He gets her drunk on cheap wine that "tastes like feet" (in case you forget, Lacy tells you that it tastes like feet about five times) and even when she says no, rapes her by penetrating her with his hand.  He then tells her she's a tease and leaves.  She proceeds to cast a spell on him and he gets in an accident.   

This sounds like a really weird episode of Charmed.  

In addition to casting weird spells, Lacy starts to become "wicked" again like she used to be, and establishes this for the reader by cutting her hair and dying it black.  

But hey, guess what!??!  At the end, we find out that Cheyenne, in addition to pulling out her daughter's heart and planting it in the backyard, placed a "binding spell" on Lacy after Lacy resurrected a bird and sucked all the life energy out of the area (just go with it now, man).  Ergo, Lacy's spell on Drake didn't work.  Cheyenne decides that Lacy would be better off with Anna.  Once Cheyenne's pernicious and wicked influence is removed, Lacy becomes "good" again.  

I honestly don't even know what to say.  There is so much ... stuff ... going on in this book and yet simultaneously nothing really happens.  The ideas in the book don't mesh well together, and it's very disjointed.  None of the characters are believable; they are caricatures.  Just say no to this book.  Please.  

Oh, hey, look what I noticed (and yes I know that cover designs are generally out of the authors' hands, but they still have to be approved by the publisher!!!):



  1. Debbie pointed me here. That is an awesome review of what sounds like a dreadful book. Thanks for taking that bullet.

    1. HI Kaethe! Thank you for stopping by! Yeah, it was one of those books that was actually quite short in length but it felt like ages reading it. Literally every other page is dogeared with notes.

    2. The awful books take so long, don't they? I'm working my way back through your reviews. They're great. Of course, I think that because we seem to have very similar taste.

  2. I came here from Debbie's link too. What is immensely disappointing to me is that this book has pretty good reviews from VOYA, Kirkus, SLJ, and PW. I know that review publications don't seem to publish negative reviews, but I really wish they did. I would trust them so much more if they were dedicated to pointing out problematic content.

    1. I hear you, Kacy. Unfortunately, I think a lot of selectors/librarians feel that those reviews are the ultimate in yes or no for ordering, OR maybe those library systems don't have the time or resources to explore other criticisms. I know one of the reviewers for one of the journals, and that person is normally very spot-on with criticism. However, the review praised the book for being beautiful etc. with a small mention of the appropriation content.
      These review publications will attack plot holes and use of formula and they have a particular disdain of anything dystopian but I think they see inclusion of Native content as "diversity."

  3. I was also drawn to this book based on the gorgeous cover and it sounded interesting, but now I'm taking off my to-read list. It sounds awful. Thanks for this insightful review!

    PS. I found you on the Problematic YA list.


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