Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mexicans, lawn jockeys, and an Indian spirit in A.S. King's PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ

Today is one of those lazy Sundays in which I pick up an acclaimed young adult novel to read--not for AICL--but just because it is important that I read books that win major awards.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A. S. King, was named as an Honor Book in YALSA's Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction in 2011. Published in 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf, I started reading it a couple of hours ago. I paused when I read this (note: I'm reading an e-book and cannot provide page numbers for excerpts):
I drive over the bridge into town. The whitest town on earth--or, more accurately, once the whitest town on Earth until the Mexicans moved in. Once you get through the crowded old suburbs where the large Victorian homes sit on the hill and past the rows of cupola-topped row houses, it's an ugly town--a mishmash of 1940s asphalt shingles, multicolored bricks, and gray concrete. There's too much litter, and too many people look angry. Dad says it wasn't always like this. He says it's not the Mexicans' fault that the city council would rather spend the city's money on new arts initiatives and a big flashy baseball stadium than more police on the streets. So now, while there's wine, cheese, and doubleheaders downtown, poverty has taken over and crime is at an all time high uptown. I lock my doors.
So--Mexicans live in the ugly part of town, but if the city spent more money on police, that part of town wouldn't be dirty, ugly, and filled with people who look angry? Really?! Just how would more police help with that? 

I kept on reading. Vera's home is on Overlook Road, near the top of a hill. So is Charlie's. They're next door neighbors, but their houses are a hundred yards apart, in a wooded area where, I gather, the wealthy people of the city live. Vera's neighbor on the other side is the Ungers. The Ungers have a boat, two Cadillacs, and a lawn with ornaments that includes
lawn jockeys (the black kind), and three cement deer--a doe and two fawns.
The Ungers also have gnomes, which Charlie and Vera move around for kicks. There is no further mention of the lawn jockeys. What are we readers to make of that?! Thinking that I'd come across something that tells me the Ungers are racist, I kept on reading. The chapter titled "History--Age Seven" opens with Charlie telling her about "the spirit of the Great Hunter." Of course, that passage gave me pause. Again. Here's that excerpt:
As far as Charlie was concerned, the Great Hunter was an Indian spirit who lived in our woods. He drank from the lake. He watched the stars from the ridge. He protected hikers and hunters and tree-climbing little urchins like us, and he created the most sacred tree of all, the Master Oak, for us to grow up in.
How nice (not)! An Indian spirit who looks after white kids. 

Not all Mexicans, or all African Americans, or all Native people, will pause at King's references to them/their culture, but I noted all three instances, and frankly, I'm more than a bit annoyed. Each of these three passages yanked me out of the story King is telling. 

I looked through reviews, and not once have I found a review from a reviewer at a journal, or from a blogger, that noted these references. Didn't anyone notice them? Or did they get noticed but were then deemed unimportant? Are such things so much a part of white culture that they are unremarkable?! 

Needless to say, I am setting aside King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Did you notice the passages?

Update: 5:03 PM, August 31, 2014

In my post (above), I should have provided a synopsis of what the book is about. Here's what you'll find at Amazon:
Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything. So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, even the police. But will she emerge to clear his name? Does she even want to?

Update: 5:44 PM, August 31, 2014

Well, I kept on reading...

I came across a "Nazi skinhead" named Mick who is boyfriend to one of Vera's coworkers (Vera works at a pizza place). One evening, Vera gives Jill a ride home. They've got Sly and the Family Stone cranking. When they get to Jill's apartment, Jill reaches over and turns the volume way down so Mick can't hear it. She turns to Vera and says "What can I do?" With Jill's action and question, we understand that King wants us to know that Mick is racist towards blacks. Why couldn't she give us something like that about the Ungers, too?

Later, Vera is remembering being on the bus when she was in 8th grade. She was listening to Al Green on her headphones. A senior guy sits with her and asks her what she's listening to. His name is Tim Miller. Vera doesn't want to tell him what she's listening to because he uses the n-word and she's sure he won't like the music she listens to. There's also a Confederate flag in his yard. He lives at the bottom of the hill. He tells Vera she's a rich kid. Given the location of his house, his family is low on the SES scale. He's obviously meant to be racist. Again--why don't we have anything to mark the Ungers as racist? Why couldn't Vera have said "the racist black kind" rather than just "the black kind" when she noted them on the Ungers lawn?  

I'm trying to figure out who Vera is...  She is well-off, doesn't like the n-word, and is aware of white supremacist racism towards African Americans. Is that a plus for Vera? For King?

Update: Monday September 1, 7:58 AM

I finished Please Ignore Vera Dietz last night and am following up on my post from yesterday.

After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police response to protesters, and white response to the entire thing, Vera's observation that more police would make the Mexican neighborhood a better place set me off. It reminded me of a piece I read in the Washington Post. Written by Carol Anderson, a professor in African American Studies, she did an excellent job providing analysis of Ferguson. Anderson's article captures what I think is wrong with King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and it being singled out for distinction, and, the lack of critical commentary on its racial dimensions.

Titled Ferguson isn't about black rage against cops. It's white rage against progress, here's an excerpt:  
Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.

Though Vera drinks and starts dating a man (she's 18; he's 23), we're supposed to like her. She is a progressive thinker. She likes African American music. She is uncomfortable around Mick, the "Nazi skinhead" and Tim, the kid who uses the n-word and has a Confederate flag in his yard.

Vera doesn't like overt racism, and she feels bad for "the black kids who are called nigger at school."

Vera is like a lot of people that object to overt racism, but don't see the institutionalized racism that is created by the aura of respectability that Anderson describes in courts, police departments, legislatures, and governing systems.

I think the aura of respectability is also very much a part of the book world. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a great example.

Vera thinks that the Mexican part of town would be better if there were more police there. Did King want us to see Vera's thinking as problematic? If she did, I think she'd have woven it into the story, but she didn't. There's nothing about it in the discussion guide she has at her site, either. The lawn jockey is never taken up again, either.

The Great Hunter does reappear. Anticipating his death, Charlie leaves a series of notes for Vera. Finding and reading them after his death, Vera reads one that says "You'll never lose me, Vera. I'm the Great Hunter now." Presumably, people love that idea, but for me, it is just more white-people-playing-Indian according to their ignorant/racist ideas about who we are! They see this play as honorable and positive, and it leads a great many to defend the use of Native imagery for sports mascots. Vera never says "oh that Great Spirit shit is fucked up." She could have, but she doesn't get it. Does A. S. King get it? I don't think so.

Again: None of this noted in reviews. The focus of those reviews is on Vera and Charlie and how they're navigating troubled waters of abandonment and abuse. No doubt, readers/reviewers see that as the most important theme of the book. All that other institutionalized racism stuff? To them, it must either be invisible or just not important.

Obviously, I disagree.

There is a great deal of harm in institutionalized racism and in that aura of respectability. 


Wendy said...

You don't think the parenthetical "(the black kind)" was Vera's/King's way of pointing out that she was aware the neighbors' statues are racist?

Sarah said...

I haven't read the book, but I think the above example (about the lawn ornament) has a lot there. It's possible that Vera is aware of their racism, and that King intends to convey this recognition. But nothing in the quoted passage gives us any sense of how Vera feels about what she's seeing, or how the author is contextualizing both the racism and Vera's perception of it within the story. The result makes the racism just part of a general backdrop-- not something with real effects and implications that include Vera (and that would affect different readers in different ways, too.) Which gets to Debbie's larger point, I think?

Anonymous said...

Ignoring racism is just part of a larger pattern in Vera's life of being a spineless twit who won't stand up for what's right. SPOILER Her best friend's father beats him and his mother and Vera's dad repeatedly tells her it's not their business to intervene or even report it to the police. She never learns anything about taking a stand or speaking out.

the becca said...

I'm mostly concerned with your points about "The Mexican part of town". When you quote that passage, it clearly states that Vera says "Dad says that..."
But several paragraphs in to your post, you start saying "Vera thinks that the Mexican part of town would be better if there were more police there." But Vera doesn't think that. Her dad thinks that, and has said that in Vera's presence, and has programmed her to think that way. The same thing with the Native's something she has been told by someone else, and she's struggling with how to think about that. These opinions are not her own, they have been given to her by outside sources. Sources that have shaped her childhood, and now that she's growing older, she's weighing those thoughts and opinions and trying to make up her own mind instead of just parroting. Throughout the book, she struggles against the opinions voiced, names called, and yes, even statuary placed in her presence. Her references to "The Whitest Town On Earth" show that she's thinking about things outside of this town and her experience and the things she's been told since she was a little girl.

Towns like this exist, I grew up in one, and when I moved to Chicago, I had to get used to a lot of things really quickly. There are people who may think that Vera is a weak example of "a progressive thinker", but I can tell you that to even have these thoughts inside this environment is pretty amazing, especially for a teen. In my hometown in Ohio, where guys used to circle the HS in a truck waving a Confederate flag and a horn playing "Dixie"... if I were to voice opinions in the cafeteria, or in public places, it could mean verbal or physical harassment from guys who had gunracks and steel-toed boots.

I'm not saying it's perfect, but Vera is a product of her environment, and the wider world has opened her eyes to other ways of thinking. Being a teen is a process of discovering who you are going to be, no matter what your upbringing, and Vera is considering being something different than most of the people in her town.

You say you're trying to figure out who Vera is... well, so is she. And it seems clear that she wants to be something more than what she has been told to be.

I think King is trying to point out that many white people who grow up in places without diversity inherit these opinions and ideas from people who have little to no experience with other cultures. Many grow into adults who never question the opinions of their childhood models. Vera is at least trying.