Why did you use that word? A review of Lucky Strikes


I was enamored of this.

I was.  Until I hit one word.  One word that broke this for me.

Lucky Strikes is historical fiction, and I understand that characters in historical fiction might use words that are offensive to use today.  But I would argue that they don't have to.  Especially not if their character has no prior history of using slurs.

The main character and narrator of this book, Melia, has a tongue like a whip with poisoned barbs on it, so her sass has venom.  And yet, she's never truly unkind to anyone except for the despicable Harley Blevins, the no-good nouveau riche self-styled oil baron who's trying to run her out of business.  I will grant you that the setting of the novel is very white: it's poor, white Appalachia during the Great Depression.  But I still felt blindsided when I read this:

"It wouldn't have surprised me none if some old darkie servant had answered the big brass knocker."

Would a character of Melia's age living in the 1930s use that word?  Probably.  Did it need to be said in this book?  Absolutely not.  In fact, the rest of the narrative would have held up perfectly if that sentence were simply omitted.   Melia is supposed to be likable in spite of her prickliness, but the addition of that one thought--that one word--makes me immediately peg her as racist.

Now, this is the part where everyone comes out and says, "But people back then talked like that!  How can you write historical fiction if you don't use accurate vocabulary!  They didn't know any better!"  And it might be true that kids wouldn't know any better than to not use that word (maybe).  But the author certainly does.  The white male author knows better.

The first time I ever encountered that word was in Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I read at a precociously young age.  I had no idea what was going one when the "darkys" showed up for the minstrel show.  I'd never heard that word before.  I assumed they were like, tan people.  Or some mysterious historical group I'd never heard of.  My brain didn't even connect that word to a slur against black people.  It was only after I got older, reopened the book and looked at the illustration that I understood.  And I was horrified.  It's blackface.  Laura's Pa uses blackface.

It makes me sick to my stomach that the author chose to leave this sentence in Lucky Strikes.  Up until that point, it was a five-star read for me.  I can't tell you how many times I burst out laughing at Melia's sass or her younger siblings' quirks or the descriptions of the people in this sleepy mountain town.  I didn't mind that the villain was a bit one-note.  It suits the story.  And now all I can think of when I cast my mind back over the book is that word, sticking out like a rotten limb that needs to be hacked off.

I went back and checked the reviews for this, and while Kirkus notes that the cast of characters is all-white due to the geographical location, this word didn't ring any bells.

What it comes down to, for me, is this: when an author thinks it's more important to be "historically accurate" and utilize a racial slur than it is to be compassionate and consider the hurt that the word will cause to many readers, we have a problem.  This problem is endemic in children's and YA literature.  In the case of Lucky Strikes, I would have had a hilarious, smart novel about family and resilience to had out to my teens if the author would have just snipped out that word.  As it stands, I can't, as a librarian with a duty to all of the patrons I serve, recommend this.


Comments

  1. How disappointing to hear this. While I'm generally all for historically accurate historical fiction, it's things like this that should be really left out. There is a huge difference between portraying an accurate time period/view and using hurtful words that bring up nothing but offense and pain. I haven't read the book, but this definitely sounds like something that could have easily been left out had no effect on the story itself. Thanks for pointing this out!

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    1. Yes, it could totally have been left out, and I probably would have given the book 4.5-5 stars. It was so odd, too, because there was literally no other mention of a PoC in the entire book. None.

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  2. Strange that the editor didn't notice it. Publishers usually do have policies about this sort of thing. It's a shame the author spoiled an otherwise-excellent book for you with one sentence. I recommend a blog called The History Girls, written by a bunch of historical novelists where they quite often discuss the problems in the language of the historical fiction they write - should they, shouldn't they? I should mention here that Frank Yerby, who was African-American, wrote historical fiction in which characters did use the word "nigger", sometimes even the hero. But I guess he had the right.

    Isn't it sad to go back to a book you loved as a child and find it disappoints you?

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    1. You know, I don't think it would have bothered me as much if the author were attempting to portray systematic racism via a character who used that word. It's just that it was tossed off so casually. I often find myself wondering what exactly certain editors were thinking.

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