The Pains of Being Young at Heart
Stories about growing up are so common that they often get dismissed by adult reviewers, unless the protagonist exhibits some sort of odd, and thus noteworthy, characteristic (for example: autism, a penchant for mapmaking, mystery solving, or being trapped on a raft with a tiger). But there’s a reason why the books from our teen years still resonate strongly with most of us decades later. We read them, we saw ourselves and we found who we wanted to be. Coming-of-age stories helped many of us plot our course to adulthood, and that’s why they matter so much, and why I enjoyed discovering new ones to share here.
Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes just might be one of my favorite reads of all time. Set during one week in 1973, it's the story of high school senior Karl Shoemaker’s last-ditch attempt to be normal. Achieving that goal is no easy feat, however, for Karl is a long time member of the “Madman Underground," a group of teens with a variety of troubling family issues that has marooned them in mandatory group therapy sessions. Karl’s father, the town’s former mayor, is dead from cancer, and his hippie mother is a binge partier who has filled their house with cats. The other kids in the group are struggling with incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and just flat out family weirdness. What they have in common is being branded by teachers as screw-ups, then doomed to an endless array of therapists who don’t know what they're doing. The Madmen struggle along through chaos at home, varying degrees of teasing at school, and some true terror in their own minds. The week of normal that Karl embarks on ends up being a hugely significant period in all of their lives, culminating in the moment they embrace a communal friendship long denied, but stronger than any of them had anticipated. It’s also about a hell of a lot more than that and has some killer writing that should not be missed.
Barnes covers dozens of high school tropes, but turns them on their heads with ease. From the coach/lit teacher who insists that Huck Finn is not “a story about a couple of queers on a raft,” to the idiotic bullies, jocks, socials, farm boys, band geeks, drama queens, hoods, and on and on. Everyone you expect is here, but by definition the Madmen belong to themselves more than any clique, even though several walk a border between popular and weird. They can never separate themselves from the fact that once a week they are all together because something is wrong with them, and it can’t be fixed. Operation Be Fucking Normal is all Karl can think about, but high school is a narrative all its own, that can't be stopped no matter how hard you try. Karl juggles four jobs, keeps the house clean, buries the cats when the raccoons get them, attends AA meetings faithfully, and dreams of normalcy, but there is still the fact that the people he cares about most in the world -- and the ones who understand him better than anyone -- are all different kinds of not normal. Fortunately, Karl figures that out early on, and the story becomes more about survival and the benefits of being true to who you are, and who you want to be.
This is not a sweet or simple story, and at moments, the reality of what the Madmen suffer through can be quite daunting. But that is the point, as Barnes illustrates so perfectly in one passage: "While Huck had these problems, Tom Sawyer just wanted to play stupid games about being robbers and things -- that was something us Madmen talked about all the time, the way kids getting raped or beaten were sitting in class next to kids whose biggest concern was what to wear for homecoming.” Karl has problems, and so do his friends. Separately they're adrift, but together, even in the unlikeliest of circumstances, they save one another. In the end, there are a few adults as well who chip in when Karl needs them, and while no one in this story is perfect, a lot of them are decent and kind and good. And the Madmen prevail against mean classmates and foolish parents and really crappy circumstances. If that doesn’t make for a truly epic coming-of-age tale, I don’t know what does. Tales of the Madman Underground is one for the ages, pure and simple. A must read.
In Stunt, author Claudia Dey takes on the somewhat predictable subject of abandonment and turns it on its head with a surreal story written from the perspective of a daughter desperate to determine why her father has left. Eugenia (aka “Stunt”) adores her father, an artist with a penchant for unlikely adventures, and an acute inability to complete even the most mundane tasks. When the book opens, Sheb is gone, leaving only a brief note behind for his wife and two daughters. The girls react in radically different ways -- Eugenia is determinedly convinced he would never willingly leave, and in despair, resorts to a suicide attempt. Immaculata soldiers on, pragmatically accepting that sometimes these things happen. Their mother, Mink, a former dancer and sometime B-movie actress, insists on convincing the neighbors her husband is dead, and stages a funeral in the backyard. The next day, in a fit of pique, she leaves as well, and the girls are left to puzzle out what has become of their family.
Rather than dwell on the realities of food and bills, Dey takes a page from fairy tales, and ages the girls a decade overnight after their mother leaves, a miracle that leaves them with more possibilities than concerns, and helps with the decision that they, too, should leave home. And yet there is, in all of this beautiful language and fanciful storytelling, a thread of realism that can not be denied, as when the sisters face the fact that their parents are not coming back:
“They packed hastily and badly, which reflects a lack of forethought, and which tells us that this was not a scheme long in the hatching but rather the directionless instincts of lunatics suddenly freed from an asylum.”
“Not that we were an asylum,” I remind her.
“No. Not that we were an asylum. They loved us, Eugenia.”
“If that’s what that was.”
“That’s what that was.”
It is impossible for me to quantify Stunt on any genre level -- is it a young adult coming-of-age story? Well, yes: the protagonist is a child, then teenager, who faces the realities of incapable parents, and forges her way in the world on her own. But it is also fantasy with more than one whimsical moment that is far stretched from reality. And then it is harshly realistic, as when Eugenia sees the world around her crumble, views her mother and father as deeply flawed human beings, and learns the biggest truth about family from the man who was her grandfather -- although Dey throws another bit of whimsy in there with the story of his failed tightrope walking career.
Stunt is a careening novel, one that carries readers along in a story that demands you give yourself up to it, and relinquish all hold on the way a story should be told. It shouldn’t work -- it should fall to pieces, and yet Eugenia’s hope to find her father again, to find a reason for what he has done, is a narrative thread that will not let the reader go. And the ending, for all its magic, is a sensible and factual shock to the system. I still don’t know what this book was, not really. But I know there are readers who will adore it, who will see Eugenia and Immaculata and their parents and say, “That's my story; that's my life!” They will place Stunt under their pillows, and carry it to class, and cling to it as proof that they are not crazy. They will read this novel and see a world they know, and believe, for once, that maybe they can be okay too. And that, quite simply, is enough for me.
Geert Spillebeen and translator Terese Edelstein tackle a tragic teenage experience in the very realistic Age 14. In 1913, Patrick Condon is desperate to escape his dreadfully poor life in Waterford, Ireland. The army offers excitement and glory, plus a better chance at decent food and a living wage then he will ever find at home. Taking his older brother’s identity, he passes for seventeen and finds himself in a man’s world where he is accepted and respected. “John” makes friends and, in the military world, finds a future that was never possible before. Then the war starts, and he's shipped off to France and then Belgium, where everyone ages overnight and the story rushes to the only conclusion one could expect for that place and time.
There are several things that make Age 14 both unique and memorable. First, I’m going to say this reads very much as a boy’s book, in that little of Patrick’s motivations are explored or debated. It’s not a book about how he feels, but more about what he does. I don’t mean to suggest that girls would not be intrigued by Age 14, (history buffs of either gender will be riveted), but it is an action narrative. It is about Patrick’s growing dismay over his circumstances, his rush to find a way out of a mind-numbing, soul-crushing future, and it's about the men who befriend him. Patrick does not ponder what to do about his life, or consider what joining the military might mean if Ireland goes to war; he just acts, and then the events that follow sweep him along until, like so many others, he is lost in a war he could never have understood -- and even if he did, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
We often wonder why young men go into battle. In researching the true life and death of a young man who died in Flanders Field (as detailed in an excellent afterword), Spillebeen shows that it is often for the smallest of reasons that soldiers fight. Patrick had a very difficult life, and no matter what the military brought him, he had good reason to believe it would be better. He just wanted something more, and when the battle found him, there was no time and no way to go home. There was only a brief moment to grow up just as so many other soldiers before him had done, and as so many continue to do. Sometimes you read a book knowing it will be a heartbreaker from the beginning, but that shouldn’t stop you -- not if it teaches you something about how we live, and Age 14 is certainly that kind of read.
The struggle to fit in is very nearly universal in teen culture, but it’s that much tougher for a lot of young people in the wake of 9/11. Author Neesha Meminger takes on both the topical issue of anit-Muslim racism and the ever-present struggle to be true to yourself in her intense and thoughtful novel Shine, Coconut Moon. It’s about figuring out who you are, and then embracing that truth, regardless of the consequences. There’s also some BFF moments, a cautionary subplot about choosing your boyfriends with care, and, I kid you not, a lot of grandparent/mother/daughter interactions that reminded me of nothing less than the Gilmore Girls. Is it any wonder that I read this one in a single sitting?
Shine opens with a shock, when 17-year-old Samar (“Sam”) meets the uncle she never knew one morning shortly after 9/11. In rapid order she discovers she also has grandparents, that they all live nearby, and that the rift in their family is due to her mother’s choice. Sam also learns she is Sikh, a religion her mother has never discussed, but that is deeply important to her family.
What follows are Sam’s attempts to figure out just who she really is, and whether knowing about her family makes her different than who she has always been. Her boyfriend, dealing with his own issues, suggests she pass as Hispanic, while her best friend, from an exuberant Irish Catholic family, denies any suggestion that Sam’s world is changing, or that her uncle, who dresses in a turban as a traditional Sikh man, could be perceived negatively by others. There are threatening moments with class bullies who fashion themselves patriots, and startling discoveries about other Indian students. There is also, most significantly, a visit with the family where Sam learns about her mother’s past and realizes how difficult it can sometimes be to be loved by such vastly different people. She also has some serious decisions to make, not the least of which is how to live with a religion that is so easily misunderstood.
Timely, smart, full of snap and style, Shine, Coconut Moon is an invitation to teenage girls to stop and think about themselves and others. It’s a sly piece of writing on Meminger’s part -- a message book that doesn’t seem the slightest bit preachy. Perfect for classroom discussion and a lazy afternoon read, this is one I fell hard for.
Julie Johnston’s A Very Fine Line combines a deep dark family secret, a kind of magic (clairvoyance), crossdressing, a doomed crush, mean girls (and boys), and tragedy. It’s also set in small town Ontario in 1941, which makes some of the elements that much more surprising -- one does not expect to find a girl insisting on being treated as a boy in that place and time. But there is a lot about 13-year-old Rosalind’s life that is unexpected, and as the twists and turns kept coming in this book, the one aspect that stayed perfectly consistent for me was how much I liked this kid, and hoped she could work out a way to deal with some monumental issues.
It all begins with the memories of some crazy great-aunts. Through careful eavesdropping, Rosalind has heard her mother’s concern that she knows things she should not know -- who is on the phone when it rings, the latest family news before its uttered, etc. Her family largely ignores this “talent,” but her mother is worried, and after one startling visit with the aunts, it is revealed Rosalind is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and that carries a gift -- and a responsibility. The only problem is that Rosalind is the youngest of six, and that means somewhere there is a secret, and it leads to all sorts of startling revelations.
And yet: This is no Lois Duncan melodrama; rather than sending Rosalind off to an asylum, Johnston sets her off to find the truth, while still denying her unwanted gift. If it goes to a daughter, she reasons, then she will dodge it by becoming a son. And so with cut hair and her cousin’s clothes, she unleashes “Ross” upon her community. The story then spins around with her mother defending her wayward, “confused” daughter, a young male tutor is hired for the duration of her transformation, and that’s when the crush develops -- and again, everything begins to unravel.
A Very Fine Line blends several different dramatic elements in unexpected ways, and it works. By the end -- the screaming, aching, unbelievable, end -- you wish you could take the “gift” away. But this is Rosalind’s life, and she has to learn how to live it. A Very Fine Line packs a wallop that is wholly unexpected and deeply felt.
Finally, I have been hard-pressed to figure out the exact readership for Kim Dong Hwa’s graphic novel trilogy The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven. After reading these books, I'm inclined to direct them towards literary-minded young women who enjoy graphic novels, and who will be equally interested in one girl’s story as well as her widowed mother’s adult romance. That could be a small pool of readers, and yet, if given a chance, I think this series has some impressive staying power.
Set in turn of the last century Korea, the Color books follow young Ehwa through childhood, as she figures out the difference between boys and girls, into her teen years, and finally to the discovery of one downright irresistible young man. There is a lot of typical young girl dramarama here, from her boy-crazy best friend to her own daunting shyness. The crushes come fast and furious, but Ehwa is determined to understand just what this crushing means, and why it can consume your life. She also is riveted by her mother’s relationship with the traveling “picture man” who visits their home during his journeys. Her mother is very much in love, and this adult component to the story -- which includes several sections told from the mother’s perspective -- is the biggest surprise. In many ways, the books are as much about the mother as they are the daughter, which is why I think they work best for older teens and beyond. It’s not just girlishness here, but adult wisdom and romance as well -- and appreciating both stories equally makes for a rich reading experience.
There is a lot about the Color books to love, including the relationship between Ehwa and her mother, and with her wacky best friend Bongsoon. Kim has written a lot of humor into these stories, and episodes of childish shock and embarrassment abound. He does get serious on occasion, however, such as when an older man attempts to purchase Ehwa from her mother, and also when Bongsoon’s elder sister becomes engaged and her spouse turns out to be much different than the younger girls expected. There is a lot of discussion about expected behavior and not acting the wrong way, as well as the difficulty of forming a love match when so much depends upon finance and status. There are also a few racy moments as the girls work out just what it is that adults do when they get together behind closed doors. Overall though, this is the story of the many different loves we have in our lives -- from family to friends to passionate embraces. The black-and-white illustrations are beautiful (Kim is especially prescient at capturing facial expressions) and the story overwhelmingly dear. If you fit the niche that appreciates what Kim is offering, then there is a certain rare treasure to be found in these books.