Saturday, February 25, 2017

Not recommended: THE LAST THING YOU SAID by Sara Biren

Earlier this year, a reader wrote to ask me about The Last Thing You Said, by Sara Biren. It is published by Amulet Books, and due out on April 4, 2017. The reader pointed me to the review in School Library Journal, which said that Biren's use of inuksuk (singular)/inuksuit (plural) in her story is an example of cultural appropriation.

Before going on, I want to point to something readers should know. The School Library Journal review is eight sentences long. At the Barnes and Noble website, you can see all eight sentences, including the one about cultural appropriation. Here's the last three sentences:
The setting, a small Minnesota town, is fully realized and gives added depth to the characterizations as well. However, the appropriation of an Inuit cultural practice, inuksuk, as a symbol for the two white teens' relationship is a poor choice. VERDICT Cultural appropriation mars an otherwise promising debut that's recommended for libraries with a high demand for romance.—Elizabeth Saxton, Tiffin, OH
Over on Amazon, however, you will find only one sentence from the SLJ review:
"Fans of Sarah Dessen and Huntley Fitzpatrick’s books will find much to love in this emotional romance."
From what I understand, publishers decide what goes on the Amazon site. They obviously didn't want you (Amazon users) to see that SLJ had a significant concern about Biren's book. This occurs quite a lot. My advice to people who buy online based on reviews: read Barnes and Nobles page(s) on whatever book it is you are considering.

Back to the reader who asked me about Biren's book.

I turned that reader's question into a post in my "Debbie, have you seen" series. Because inuksuit originate with Inuit people, I wondered about them being in Duluth (where The Last Thing You Said is set).

A day later I received a pdf copy of The Last Thing You Said from Erica Finkel. She is Biren's editor. She saw my post and said that SLJ's review was based on a galley, and that she wanted me to have the final copy. I assume that means there were some changes between the galley and the final--based on SLJ's review. I don't have the galley that SLJ had when they wrote their review, so I can't compare the two. If someone does send me the galley, I'll be back with an update. I think that being able to track revisions in a book is tremendously useful to writers, readers, editors... all of us.

Here's the description of the book:
Last summer, Lucy’s and Ben’s lives changed in an instant. One moment, they were shyly flirting on a lake raft, finally about to admit their feelings to each other after years of yearning. In the next, Trixie—Lucy’s best friend and Ben’s sister—was gone, her heart giving out during a routine swim. And just like that, the idyllic world they knew turned upside down, and the would-be couple drifted apart, swallowed up by their grief. Now it’s a year later in their small lake town, and as the anniversary of Trixie’s death looms, Lucy and Ben’s undeniable connection pulls them back together. They can’t change what happened the day they lost Trixie, but the summer might finally bring them closer to healing—and to each other.

So. Here are my notes/comments as I read.

In chapter one we meet Lucy. She lives in Lake Halcyon, a small town in Minnesota. She's at her summer job at a resort there. We learn about vacation cabins that Trixie's aunt and uncle have owned "for generations" and about the restaurant her own family owns. It, too, has been in the family for generations. That "for generations" framework is annoying because it conveniently obscures who that land belonged to, before any of these characters and their families built cabins and restaurants on it. At this point, this book is an All White Book. Written by a white person for a white audience.

In chapters two, three, and four, we learn that Ben is angry at Lucy, her brother, Clayton, and at himself, too. The summer before, Ben, Lucy, Clayton, and Trixie were out together on the lake. Clayton and Trixie went for a swim. At the moment when Trixie (Ben's sister) was dying, Ben and Lucy were flirting. Ben is angry at his mom, too, for her worry about how Lucy is doing.

In chapter five, we meet Hannah Mills. She's from Mitchell, South Dakota. Her mom has written over 20 best selling historical western romances. Hannah moved to Halycon Lake after Trixie drowned. She's who Lucy hangs out with now.

In Chapter twelve, Ben is in his room. He used to polish rocks. On his desk is an agate, which reminds him of one he gave to Lucy, and a lot of other rocks he's collected. This is the first mention of an inuksuk (p. 63-64):
I balance a few rocks into a small stack, careful to keep it from tumbling over. It reminds me of an inuksuk. Dad told us about them on our first trip to Duluth years ago when we saw a couple along the side of the road. They’re stone structures that the Inuit used as guideposts, to mark good hunting or fishing, to give direction—practical reasons, but spiritual ones, too, Dad said, as memorials or to mark a place of respect. Last summer, that last trip before Trixie died, we saw at least fifty of them at one of the rocky beaches. 
My tower is irregular, off balance, but the clink of the stones as I stack them is like a balm on my soul. I’ve created something.
But unlike an inuksuk, these rocks don’t tell me which direction to go.
I sweep my hand across the stack and the stones crash to the desk.
There are, in fact, inuksuit in Duluth. Biren isn't misrepresenting their presence. In that passage, Ben's dad tells him that they have a practical and a spiritual significance to the Inuit. There, I think, is the line that Biren crossed: they have a spiritual significance.

Think of your own religious denomination and things in it that are used to memorialize something. If someone not of your denomination were to take and use that thing, would that be ok? I think the ubiquitous nature of inuksuit is similar to a lot of items from specific peoples (Native and not) that someone thinks is cool, and then someone else does, too, and before you know it, everyone has the item. Its meaning and significance to those who it originated with are lost as that thing becomes kitsch. This is the case for dreamcatchers and kokopelli, too. 

I gather that in her story, Biren's characters are using inuksuit for healing. But, I wonder, what is Ben's own religion? I guess it isn't enough to help him with his grief. 

On page 82 in chapter 14, Ben goes to a place where he and Trixie used to climb trees. He gathers rocks and stacks them against one of the trees. They tumble as he does. Then, he rearranges them so they are balanced. 

On page 98 in chapter 18, we learn a bit about Ben's friend, Guthrie.  He is part Irish and part Ojibwe. Then on page 101, there's a bit more:
When he’s not fishing, he’s reading. He never knew his Ojibwe grandfather, and in fourth grade, he decided to learn everything he could about his ancestors. He didn’t stop there. He learned about other Native cultures and then moved on to German and Scandinavian immigrants, and French-Canadian trappers. He’s like a walking Minnesota history book. 
Interesting. Why didn't he know his Ojibwe grandfather? Why is he described as having this ancestry? Is it going to matter somehow? Or is it decoration?

In chapter 24, Lucy remembers the polished agate stone that Ben gave to her on a trip they'd been on, together, to Duluth. 

On page 138, Ben is remembering the trip, too, and the inuksuit they found on the shore of Lake Superior. There were at least fifty of them. Lucy had watched Ben try to make one, too. He realized, then, that he was in love with her. 

On page 159, Ben is with Guthrie at his house on the lake. There are rocks there, and as he talks with Dana on the phone (who he is dating but wants to break up with), he stacks the rocks. They keep falling over. After he gets off the phone with Dana, he looks for more rocks, pockets some, and makes a tower. Then, he makes another one. It falls over, onto the first one. He starts over, and rebuilds both of them, carefully, and then lets out a long breath (p. 160):
“Hey.” Guthrie is behind me. I turn to face him. “You are on the right path,” he says. 
“Those look like inuksuit. One of the meanings of inuksuit is ‘You are on the right path.’ A marker. It’s a way to let others know that you’ve been here, that this is the right path.” 
“Oh,” I say. “Right.” 
We go back to the fire and Guthrie rattles on about this new hot spot he found on Papyrus, but I can’t stop thinking about what he said. 
You are on the right path. 
Nothing feels right.
Hmmm... Remember Guthrie's reading about other Native cultures? He knows about inuksuit. 

Thought it isn't spelled out, my guess is that there's something going on with that passage. Ben wants to break up with Dana. As he talks to her, the tower he builds falls again and again. Once he hangs up, he is able to make a tower, and then another, next to it. There isn't any explicit mention of Lucy, but I think she's in the background. He is still in love with Lucy. He's able to build two towers that don't fall over. They're meant to be him and Lucy. He can make the two towers that represent him and Lucy; hence, he's on the right path. He doesn't get it, yet. 

In chapter 30, Lucy takes off (without her parents permission) with Hannah, Dustin (he's Hannah's boyfriend) and Simon (Lucy's current boyfriend) to a rodeo in Mitchell, South Dakota. She has sex with Simon hoping to forget Ben (it doesn't work, and when she gets back home, she's grounded for the rest of the summer).

When chapter 31 opens, Ben is with Guthrie. He learns that Hannah is missing. Guthrie knows where she is. Ben decides to go there, too, but halfway there he changes his mind and turns around. He is crying, at one point as he drives, and pulls over at a park near a lake. There, he looks for rocks and remembers the ones he got while he was at Guthrie's. He makes a tower and thinks about the many towers he has made, and where he's made them. Building them soothes him.  

In chapter 36, Lucy sneaks into town to the used bookstore. She remembers that she got a complete set of the Little House books there, and that her mother would read them aloud to her. Whenever I come across a reference to that series, I cringe. And I hope that the author is aware that uncritical references to that book yank readers--who are aware of the racism towards African Americans and Native Americans in the series--right out of the book. I would absolutely be ok with a character who says "hey, that series sucks" but I've not yet found it yet. (Have you?)

Lucy gets a text from Simon who has spotted her through a window. It is awkward, especially because Ben is there, too, at another store, and sees them. Lucy declines Simon's invitation for a ride home. She cuts through a park on her way home and stops to rest on a bench. She sees a stack of rocks at the base of a tree (this is the one that Ben made earlier) and remembers Ben stacking rocks at Lake Superior. 

In chapter 38, Ben's parents talk with him about Lucy and why the two aren't friends. They also bring up his drinking. All through the book, he's had beer, sometimes other liquor Sometimes he takes liquor out of his dad's liquor cabinet. He's clearly in pain over his sister's death. 

In chapter 41, Ben is drunk. Guthrie, who is now dating Hannah, picks him up. They go to Guthrie's house and watch The Outlaw Josey Wales. I wonder if Biren knows the author of the book that the movie is based on is "Forrest Carter" -- who masqueraded as a Cherokee when he wrote The Education of Little Tree. Probably not, but, for me, this is another reference that yanks me out of the story she's telling.

In chapter 42, Hannah has a birthday party at her house by the beach. Lucy is drinking (she's still supposed to be grounded), and Ben is drunk. Simon is there, and so is Dana (Ben's girlfriend). There's lots of tension and heated words. Lucy leaves the house and walks to the teach. All along the woods are stacks of rocks, like the ones she saw at Lake Superior, the ones Ben called inuksuit. She lies beside them and passes out. 

Ben (who had a fist fight with Simon) finds her there and carries her to the porch. Dana finds them and there's another argument. Lucy doesn't remember much of this the next day. Her parents are angry but think her being grounded for the summer wasn't a good idea because she needed friends to help her get through the summer without Trixie. 

Ben goes to a Watermelon Days carnival. So does Lucy. They end up meeting, there, and it seems they'll get together again but, nope. They end up arguing. She walks away; he gets in his car and drives off. 

Chapter 51 is one line, all alone on the page. It is Ben thinking "This is not the right path." 

In the next chapters, Ben sends Lucy a gift, telling her that he loves her. She breaks up with Simon. On the evening before the first anniversary of Trixie's death, Lucy tells Ben she broke up with Simon, but she's busy (remember, she works at her family restaurant) and can't say any more than that. The next morning, Ben resolves to tell Lucy he's sorry about all that has happened. 

Ben's day starts with him heading out to build an inuksuk for Trixie. For weeks, he's been gathering giant rocks. There are six of them. They're in the trunk of his car. When he's finished with it, it is nearly as tall as he is. He's made it by the lake, near where Trixie died. Then, he texts Lucy, telling her he's at the park and that he wants to talk. There, by the inuksuk, they talk about Trixie, and what has happened since her death. They hug, kiss, and hold hands as they walk to his car, to go wherever their paths lead them. 

 That's it. End of the story. 

In her Author's Note, Biren says that she became interested in inuksuit when she lived in Duluth during her college years (p. 303):
It was then that I became interested in the history of inuksuit, the stone structures of the Inuit. Although the Inuit are not native to the area, it is not uncommon to see rock structures or sculptures along the North Shore Scenic Highway, in parks throughout the city, or in art galleries.
She goes on to say that the idea of inuksuit as guideposts on life's journey came to her as she wrote The Last Thing You Said. 

As I noted above, Biren's representation of them as present in Duluth is not a problem. What is a problem, however, is that her characters don't question why they are there. I'd like to know why they're there. Finding out who first put them there, though, might be an endless pursuit that leads nowhere. In those instances, we can step away from that pursuit and have a character think critically about them. Daniel Jose Older did something like that in Shadowshaper. 

There isn't any critical thinking of that kind in The Last Thing You Said. There are many opportunities for doing that, with the inuksuit, or the references to Little House and Outlaw Josey Wales, or, in Guthrie not knowing anything about his Ojibwe grandfather. These are, however, missed opportunities. I agree with the SLJ review. There is cultural appropriation in Biren's book. It also feels like she's tacked on Guthrie's Ojibwe identity to meet the calls for diverse characters. When that is superficial, however, it doesn't work.

I'm glad that Finkel (Biren's editor) sent me the book. Finel and Biren missed a lot, and I hope this long look at the book helps them see things they missed. Whether or not they agree with my critique, I hope they talk about it and share it with others, too.  

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