February 14, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: REBELS LIKE US by Liz Reinhardt

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I'm not usually a huge fan of the traditional "South," -- as a thematic novel concept, it's got baggage so big it doesn't fit into the carry-on compartments. Reading a novel set in Georgia isn't problematic of itself - I did read GONE WITH THE WIND, after all - but it's what isn't in the novel that's sometimes at issue. This novel is matter-of-fact with its underage drinking and sex, but I picked it up because it is the rare YA narrative featuring a biracial character... turns out, there's more than that going on - a lot more. "Some things are bigger than all of us," is the tagline of the novel. Readers may find themselves coming to different conclusions as to what that "thing" might be...

Synopsis: For Agnes Murphy-Pujols - "Nes" to her friends - the obvious thing, when her boyfriend Lincoln's cheating crashes against her mother's work-related disaster - the obvious thing is to just leave Brooklyn. Her mother is taking a job in Georgia to escape the fallout of a poor decision, so resentful and rebellious and deeply homesick, Nes decides against bunking with friends or fleeing to her father and brother in Paris, and goes along with Mom for the last semester of her senior year. Unfortunately, small-town Georgia isn't quite ready for a half-Dominican smart mouth from Brooklyn - Nes doesn't know this language of "ma'am" and syrupy verbal respect for elders, and she doesn't know what to make of being estranged from both her mother - her father - and away from her bestie. Georgia - with "mudding" in a truck on the weekend and swimming in swimming holes with "gators" is nothing, nothing, nothing like Brooklyn - and while Nes is pretty slow to make friends of the female kind, she's very quickly found an admirer in Doyle Rahn - a big, gorgeous hunk of dude with a green thumb and a drawl like warmed syrup. The attraction is mutual - and headlong fast - but it runs into a wall: this is small-town Georgia, a town which has two proms, one for the white kids, and... one for the kids who look like Nes. Biracial? Dominican? Those words mean nothing in Dixieland. Nes has made it clear that she's leaving - nothing about Georgia attracts her or makes her think it's a long-term option for her life - but before she goes, she and Doyle and a few of their friends shake up their small town in a feel-good rebel triumph over racism.

Observations: This is a problematic novel for me, but readers who wish to read it solely as a romance novel may enjoy doing so if they're able to suspend their disbelief about a variety of other issues that don't matter to them. The first 135 pages or so is all about the move, Nes and her mother's relational breakdown, Nes's homesickness, etc., and her incipient romance with a hunky boy. The conflict blooms much more slowly than the feelings of attraction and romance. Readers who dislike "insta-love" will find that it's a pretty quick attraction, but the push-pull of the work needed to have a relationship happens throughout the book.

I had issues with the rest of the novel, however. Nes arrives from Brooklyn to small town Georgia with no thought at all that it will be different from New York and possibly problematic, because she has dark skin. We're constantly reminded that Nes is half-Dominican, half-Irish, and I've read the narrative which downplays that fact described as "genius," yet for me, it appeared that she was not terribly knowledgeable about her culture in addition to being unbelievably ignorant of the historical traditions and attitude of the South. Perhaps Nes's mother, as a white lady, may have had the privilege to not think about race, ethnicity, and the concerns of having dark skin - however, as a mother of a mixed-race teen in this environment when teens of color are being hassled by police, it would seem impossible to be blind to the dangers to her own child. Nes cannot ever shed her skin - in an America in which institutionalized racism is a fact of life, Nes would have experienced some level of bias against her in New York, and also would have been well aware of the issue of being someone who looked black in a small town in the South. That the narrative allows Nes only to experience racism in Georgia is surprising. It's a shortcoming for many non-minority Americans to imagine that slavery and all of its ills - like recalcitrant, Jim Crow racism - are something that is only ever and always the dominion of the South. It is not. Unless the writer set the novel entirely in some parallel universe, time out of mind -- which she does not, because she mentions Lorelei and Rory Gilmore as familiar pop-culture touchstones -- there are some day to day facts about race in America and the experience of being a dark-skinned, half-Dominican female which she either does not know, or chooses to ignore.

Ms. Lovett, who "has the same, huggable, curvy figure and soft, dark brown skin" as Nes's grandmother - is the stern English teacher who requires Nes to call her 'ma'am,' but is easily turned to Nes's team because she apparently loves her sass. Lovett veers perilously close to the Mammy trope, seemingly on hand in the novel solely for the purpose of giving Nes Life Lessons and changing her, allowing her to confide that she's "not actually African American," so she in turn can assure Nes that race is "complicated" and that she, too, is a woman of complex parts, and "half-Cherokee." Ms. Lovett teaches Nes "respect," hands Nes books by Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, essentially wipes her tears, swats her bottom, and sends her on her way to "shake the dust off this old town," just like everyone's favorite Aunt Jemima. As Nes is a high school senior of color from Brooklyn attending a top-tier high school, I find it brow-raising that Nes would have been coming to this canon of black American authors blind, having never heard of them, and only being introduced to them by the redemptive power of a black Southern teacher. While the Magical Negro trope in its typical form doesn't quite work here, I found myself wishing Lovett had been a white character, or Nes's mother, or another student -- or anything...

Conclusion: The novel attempts to delve into a big topic but for me is missing levels of nuance and an understanding of what it is to be a black woman of any ethnicity in the United States in contemporary times. The novel veered at times into slur - including against the Irish as red-headed drunks - and stereotype, which detracted from the narrative, confirming that I was not the intended audience. Regardless, for many, this novel will engage with the quick, hot flare-up of its romance, its feel-good, fairytale ending, and its myriad good intentions.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, and all quotes or references are from an uncorrected Advanced Reader Copy. After February 28, 2017, you can find REBELS LIKE US by Liz Reinhardt at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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