January 12, 2006

Breaking the Rules

My mother and I were talking about books – as we often do, since I'm a writer and she's an English/Humanities teacher – and she pointed out how odd it is that there aren't many fiction books of note dealing with the topic of the September 11th attacks. It's almost, she said, as if people are scared to go there. And heaven forbid that anyone should write a YA piece dealing with such abhorrent subject matter.

Well, at least one author was unafraid to tell the story of a young adult against the backdrop of September 11th, and in an almost entirely politically neutral way. However, you probably won't find Joyce Maynard's novel The Usual Rules in the YA section of the library. Why that is is up for debate, but I'm guessing that—at least for the adults who purchase and shelve books—there hasn't been quite enough distance, perhaps, for us to call it history and deem it "safe."

But let's face it—nobody lives in a completely safe world, and it's when you're a young adult that this really starts to become clear. In Maynard's book, thirteen-year-old Wendy's life changes forever when she loses her mother in the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Her relationships with her stepfather and little half-brother are irrevocably altered, and nobody seems to know how to react now that the rules of the world—and their own lives—have been broken.

The amazing part about this book is that it is not a political novel. I don't remember politics being mentioned even once. Rather, it is a novel about personal loss, about family tragedy, and about healing and growth in the midst of it all. Wendy makes a difficult decision to leave her little brother, who is just coming to understand that his mother isn't coming back, and her stepfather, who has been a wonderful father to her for five years, and she goes to California to spend some time with her estranged biological dad. There, she meets a handful of new people, each with their own personal, isolating sadness. In a way, they all need each other to heal.

Though in certain respects, the needy characters' coming together was a bit easy and convenient, it was still touching and, by that point in the story, I needed and wanted to believe it could happen. Maynard's skilled writing and clear prose made it easier to overlook parts that seemed less believable. And though the Amazon.com critic felt that her use of September 11 as a backdrop was a hindrance, I felt that her treatment of that event as a human tragedy rather than an opportunity for a political polemic was entirely appropriate and very much needed.

There is a catharsis in this book, and it's found in healing oneself and helping others heal—in whatever way is most appropriate to the individual. We all have different ways of healing—and we all have different ways of dealing with tragedy in writing. Maynard's way might break some rules, but as Wendy observed numerous times in the book, sometimes the usual rules just don't apply any more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

American History is not a subject which is treated lightly in YA lit at all... I recall that Avi's Nothing But The Truth was banned or censured or something, and it was entirely fictional. Chris Crutcher tried writing a story about Columbine and that didn't go over well, even with his track record. I have no hope whatsoever for the novel I wanted to write about Waco, but... I'm eventually going to try anyway. As long as it's fictionalized and not political I guess it can fly, but it seems that things are sore points with the American public for a long time, thus making editors super-extra-paranoid-wary.