Saturday, January 11, 2014

HOOKED by Liz Fichera

I'm among those who wish that we had more books featuring Native protagonists in which the setting is today. Or last year. Or even ten years ago. Point is, stories about us as-we-are, with our cars and trucks (old or new) and our cell phones.... and, well, you know what I mean.

Course, I want those books to ring true. I want the ways that the characters speak and the things they say to sound like Native people. And I don't want the Native characters to be saved by non-Native ones. And though alcoholism is one of our realities, does an alcoholic mom or dad HAVE to be part of the story?

So let's turn, now, to Liz Fichera's Hooked, published in 2013 by Harlequin Teen. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

When Native American Fredricka 'Fred' Oday is invited to become the only girl on the school's golf team, she can't say no. This is an opportunity to shine, win a scholarship and go to university, something no one in her family has done.

But Fred's presence on the team isn't exactly welcome -- especially not to rich golden boy Ryan Berenger, whose best friend was kicked off the team to make a spot for Fred. But there's no denying that things are happening between the girl with the killer swing and the boy with the killer smile...

Hooked is set in the present day. Its geographic location? The southwest. Specifically, Phoenix and even more specifically, the Gila River Indian Community. On the right is their logo. Notice that word--community--in what I said and in their logo? They don't say "reservation" but that is what Fred, the protagonist in Hooked says. I have a dear friend from there. When we first met, he was always using "community" rather than reservation. Over the years, I've grown accustomed to hearing Gila River Indian Community. When I came to "Gila River Indian Reservation" (page 10) in Hooked, it irked me, and it pulled me out of the story. It made me wonder if Fichera had spent enough time with people at Gila River to know their speech and word choices.

The synopsis refers to Fred being invited to be on the school golf team. The person who invites her is Coach Lannon. When she accepts the invitation, the text reads that the coach "practically leaped into a full-blown Grass Dance" (p. 10). Ok, I thought, the author is giving us what she thinks might be a Native perspective on the coach's enthusiasm. Do you know what a grass dance looks like? Here's footage showing men doing the grass dance at the Denver March Powwow:

I can see how a coach might have done some footwork that looks like a grass dance... BUT. There's a footnote with Fichera's "full blown Grass Dance," and here's what the footnote says (p. 10):

A Native American ceremonial dance expressing harmony with the Universe.

That footnote stopped me cold. It is most definitely NOT what a grass dance is about! Or perhaps I should say, that is not the generally accepted explanation of what that dance is about. Indian Country Today has an article about the dance. Here's what it says:

The dominant legend is that a Northern Plains boy, born handicapped yet yearning to dance, was told by his medicine man to seek inspiration in the prairie. Upon doing so, the boy had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses; he returned to his village, shared his vision, and eventually was given back the use of his legs through the first-ever grass dance.

A practical origin is more generally cited, however: To settle a new area, create an appropriate venue for a tribal meeting, or secure an arena for a ceremony, high grasses had to be trampled down to ensure visibility. Scouts would stomp on the grasses to flatten them, and the grass dance grew from there. Yet another strain of the dance’s genesis points toward the importance of dried grass in the warrior’s life: It could be used as tinder, or even as makeshift stockings, for warmth. The regalia honors the role of grass in the warrior’s life—and indeed, grass dance societies often grew from warrior societies. In fact, a grisly theory states that once upon a time, warriors would do victory dances with scalps attached to their garments. Dried grass came to stand in for scalps, then yarn for grass.

So, red flags started popping up right away as I started reading Hooked. Then on page 11, the coach tells her that playing golf for the team could win her a scholarship to college. She really wants to go to college, so that idea weighs heavily in her decision. The thing is, though, that was another red flag! Gila River provides scholarships for students who want to go to college. Fred worried about money for college just doesn't make sense.

A few pages later (page 16) we're at the alcohol problem. Fred's mom is an alcoholic. That isn't a red flag, necessarily, but alcoholism figures all too often in stories about us. Couldn't Fichera write a story without alcohol?

Hooked is told in alternating voice, by chapter. The first chapter was Fred; the second one is Ryan, "the boy with the killer swing." That structure has great appeal. I like it. I kept reading, but kept coming across those red flags. Only five or so Native kids at the high school? Not realistic!

I read on, anyway, because it got a starred review from Kirkus and I thought I should know the book cover-to-cover.

By the time I got near the end, I was weary.

Then I was irate (again) because Fred's dad has a heart attack, and who gives him CPR? Who saves him? Ryan. And when he is taken to the hospital and they won't operate on him, who steps in and makes the operation happen? Ryan's mom, who is a surgeon there. If it weren't for white-boy-Ryan and his white-mom-surgeon, Fred would have lost her dad, who is the center of her world.

I see why the book has gotten favorable reviews, but I disagree. Vehemently.

I read that she asked Native people she knows to read a draft. She reports that they liked it, but some people like Native mascots, too, and don't care that they aren't accurate. There is, sadly, amongst so many of us, such a great need to be recognized that some of us give a nod to whatever image we see.

It saddens and annoys me that Hooked is a nominee for YALSA's Best YA Fiction. Its nomination, and the starred and positive reviews, point to how far we have to go towards really understanding who Indigenous people are so that the books we choose to celebrate are ones worthy of that celebration.


Naomi said...

Thank you Debbie! I'm working on my review for this one. As a member of the Gila River Indian Community and a librarian, I do not recommend this book for YALSA's best YA fiction! The best YA book selected by the American Indian Library Association will be announced shortly so libraries get ready! The books recommended by Native Librarians for youth will be out soon!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I like Naomi's comment. I read this blog frequently and always learn something. And am usually amazed at what I didn't know and the unintended insults or slights we often make by not knowing. I'd like to see more books reviewed by the people they are about. Then maybe, as librarians, we would all have a better idea of what to recommend. Debbie, I think you do a real service.

Beverly Slapin said...

Your right-on-target analysis of Liz Fichera’s HOOKED sounds like the author tried to “borrow” elements from Sherman Alexie’s amazing ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN (“rez,” alcoholism, hopelessness, Indian minority in high school, Indian excelling in sports, Indian-white romance, etc.) Problem is, she's an outsider who doesn’t know enough--or doesn't care enough--to write well about any of it. And now it appears that she’s written another one, called CAPTIVE SPIRIT (!) This one sounds like a copycat cross between Scott O’Dell’s horrendous SING DOWN THE MOON and Tanya Landman’s nauseating I AM APACHE. Once again, Debbie, thank you for all your hard work. Stay strong and don’t stop.

Debbie Reese said...

Beverly--I think CAPTIVE SPIRIT came out before HOOKED, and though the protagonist is in her teens, it wasn't marketed as a YA novel.

I read some of it online at Amazon, and all the conversation between the protagonist and her sister and her mother sounds like present-day to me, even though its setting is "dawn of the sixteenth century". I know its tough for anyone to imagine the conversations of someone who is 'other' to who they themselves are, but surely Indigenous peoples of that time period would NOT sound like something I'd read in a book set in the present day. I wouldn't want any of that jaw-breaker language either, of course, but the values and speech in CAPTIVE SPIRIT do not sound at all like what I'd expect in a story set in the southwest hundreds of years ago.

Something else I found intriguing about Fichera is interviews where she named three books as mong her favorites. The interview is at STACKED. Fichera listed GONE WITH THE WIND and LITTLE HOUSE series... Perhaps it is the tenacity of Scarlett and Laura that she liked, but somehow, it seems to me that she has to consider the stereotyping that occurs in both of those books. Here's the link:

TamH said...

Dear Miss Reese
I am 16. I am also Gila and Navajo. My family we live in Phoenix but my aunt and cousins live on the rez-yes many of us still say this-and we stay with them alot. My mother gave me this book and i liked it very much. Fred is quiet and strong and brave like me. Usually when i get a book i dont finish it. With Hooked i couldnt stop until i finished it. I think you would like this book better if you were a teen like me. This is how i feel.
Thank you

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Tam,

I say "reservation" and my nieces and nephews say "rez" when we're talking about our reservation at Nambe. Using either word is fine--whether it is Nambe of Gila River--but the tribe's name does not include Reservation, and the Gila River people I know don't use it when they say the name of the tribe.

There are some books that I read when I was 16 that when I've gone back to re-read them today as a mom, or as a professor, or as a teacher, I think about how awful the book is and how much times--and me--changed since I'd read that book.

I'm thinking that books like HOOKED will be like that in a few years. People who liked them will look back at them and see errors in them that didn't seem to matter at the time of their first-read of the book.

That shift over time is part of the progress we make as a society. For a long time, people felt that a woman's place was in the home, barefoot and pregnant. Books reflected that way of thinking. We don't think that anymore. Books changed to reflect our changed thinking about what women could and could not do.

In HOOKED, it is way cool to have a Native female who reflects you in some way, but I wonder what that book would look like if you had written it? I'd love to read a book that you'd write about growing up in Phoenix, visiting your aunt and cousins. I think Fichera makes mistakes that you wouldn't make.