This month I recommended to Johanna my favorite book, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. So needless to say, I am super excited and nervous to see what she has to say about it. It is, from all metrics given to me by Ms. Parkhurst, completely out of her wheelhouse in terms of literature that she would select for herself. It's speculative fiction, so it's about concepts and world building and doesn't follow the traditional fiction narrative form. In fact, the entire goal of the novel is to play with the concepts of fictional narrative forms, and the ways in which readers build a relationship between themselves, text, and the author. If you ever wanted to read a book about the act of reading itself, this is the one.
I don't like to give a lot of spoilers about this book, partly because to tell would be to spoil it, but also because it's hard to capture. Few authors so successfully use the sort of narrative frame that Calvino uses in If on a Winter's Night, like Borges and William Goldman (and if you haven't read The Princess Bride yet, and you liked the movie, you need to run out immediately and purchase yourself a copy. It's absolutely delightful and wonderfully inventive). Essentially, Calvino opens If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by speaking to you, the reader, and it's not very long before you realize that you are the protagonist of the book, kinda like ol' Bastian in The Neverending Story. Except with a bunch of dorky postmodernist concepts and an inconsistent universe.
This recommendation also gets to the heart of a key difference in the ways in which Johanna and I differ so greatly as readers; she's in it for the feels, and I'm in it for the beautiful ideas. I like to escape, not in feeling, but in imagining new worlds or thinking about concepts that feel fresh and exciting and mind-blowing. I recommended this book to Johanna fully aware that what was once a book that refreshed my love of literature at a time when I felt utterly burnt out on it might actually, to her perspective, feel like an annoyingly self-aware and over-intellectualized jaunt into the neurosis of authorship and reader-dom. The only way to know, though, is to see what she had to say herself.
I couldn't love it though, because the characters exist solely as the exigence for situations to pull at the heartstrings. One girl is pregnant and gives up her child for adoption, triggering the exploration into her biological past. Another is dealing with an alcoholic parent and the looming divorce of her adoptive parents. The third sibling, a boy, is struggling with the weight of his past jumping from one foster home to another, and the mistakes he's made in the process. There's a couple of things that bother me about this. First, like many young adult novels, the author doesn't bother to flesh out the characters. One is a vaguely nice and sad girl, another copes with sarcasm and is defined largely by her relationship with her girlfriend (so she's a lesbian and that is her identity outside of the adoption plotline), and the boy is Mexican and an artist, though neither aspects of him is explored in the book beyond a single scene of him helping a kid throw a pottery vase. The rest of the book unravels like most any teen drama, with pregnancy, shame, arguments that lead to regret, and a small flirtation with smoking a joint. I should say, when it comes to the way in which the teen mother is struggling to cope with her feelings and thoughts regarding the child she gave to adoption, I felt Benway did do the character some real justice, and convincingly crafted a heartbreaking depiction of her grief.
And here I feel I need to rant. Because the second thing that bothers me about this book is the degree to which it is sterilized, presumably to protect the minds of the young readers who encounter it. There is a vague mention about the one character not being ready for swimsuit season because her pregnancy left her stomach "floppy". No real discussion about the ways that pregnancy ravages a woman's body, especially one who has not yet fully developed, and it's gross that the only time the issue arises is in the context of whether she's ready to wear a bikini. There's the fact that the other girl is largely defined by her lesbian relationship, and she keeps bringing it up to challenge the people she meets, and at no point does she ever have to contend with other people's negative perceptions about it. That's great; that's realistically ideal, but it doesn't add to the plotline, which would be fine if she had anything else going for her besides that and her adoptive identity. And the boy perhaps bothers me the most. I found him to be the most sympathetic and fleshed out of the characters, but that actually drew my attention to the saccharine way in which his identity was handled. He never had any real issues with foster care, except the one time a foster father pushed him for hitting his bio daughter with a stapler by accident. He is aware that he is an "undesirable" adoptive child because he is visibly Mexican, but the only discussion about the struggle of what it's like to grow up with a distinct cultural and racial identity without access to mentors to guide you through them takes place between his white bio sister and her Mexican boyfriend, and it takes place in half a page. Nor do they acknowledge white America has its own cultural and racial identity to contend with. Instead, they engage in a moment of pity for this Mexican kid they hardly know, and how tough it must be for him to not be Mexican enough, while he himself never dwells on the topic. The whole things grossed me out, frankly, and the author would have been better off ignoring the topic rather than giving it such cursory attention.
There are other scenes that bother me, like the foster kid being appalled that his sister is *gasp* smoking a joint! to the point that he has to find the roach and throw it over the fence. It's absurd. It's absolutely absurd. It reminds me of a Sherman Alexie Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he responds to another writer who expressed disgust over young adult books that get, in her opinion, too gritty for the virgin eyes of children. Alexie expressed his own disgust at such an attitude, saying of such critics, " ...they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged."
Ultimately I was not touched by Far from the Tree, because it felt like what a privileged adult would want kids to know about actually difficult situations without having to expose them to the harsh realities that come with it. I didn't feel like the characters were real people, so I didn't have any real sympathy for them.
And again, maybe I've been spoiled. On the topic of foster care and adoption in young adult fiction, I always point to Sherman Alexie's novel Flight. The novel focuses on the plight of one character in foster care, and he is racially mixed, and the book touches upon ICWA, the law meant to protect Native American children from forced assimilation to white culture, and what happens when a mixed child doesn't get the protection of the law or access to Native foster care because he can't prove that he has tribal affiliation. He uses foul language and talks about orgasms. He develops a dark sense of humor. He drinks alcohol. He parties with homeless drunks. He steals and begs. He erupts in violence toward foster parents, and he gets locked up. He squats in an abandoned warehouse with another runaway.
Now, I know that Alexie is now "cancelled" because of his problematic history with women and that he has fully admitted to it, but this novel does what I wish Far from the Tree had done: it honors the painful, ugly, honest experience of what it is like to be a child in foster care who has, amongst other issues, to contend with his tenuous grasp on his racial and cultural identity. And it is him engaging in figuring that all out, not the pitying side conversation of a white person he only just met. Also. It's just an excellent and beautiful novel that does make me cry whenever I read it, so I recommend it highly in place of this book. It doesn't replace the discourse about adoption issues, but it does a far better job of thinking about how a child struggles with his identity when he doesn't know who he belongs to.
I do get the appeal of Far from the Tree though. It's not scary. Everything ties up neatly with a pretty little bow, and all the kiddos have great relationships with everyone around them and look forward to bright futures. The alcoholic mom is in recovery, all the romantic relationships are salvaged, the foster kid gets adopted right before he turns 18, and everyone is excited to connect with their newly found family members. The message to young readers is clear; family and support systems are key to surviving crises of identity, and it's possible to wait out the storm. I can see why it would be popular in classrooms and with parents. It allows kids to play with big ideas in a way that won't actually give them nightmares. Unless, of course, the kid reading them is already living the nightmare.
“Don't you get it? That's what happens when you love someone: they're brave when you can't be! I can be brave--for you, for both of us!”
“It took us fifteen years to find each other, but we still did! And sometimes, family hurts each other. But after that's done you bandage each other up, and you move on. Together. You've got us now, like it or not, and we've got you.”
“That’s what parents do. They catch you before you fall. That’s what family is.”