Under The Radar: Flux
cj bott, James Bucky Carter, Sean Kottke, Jon Ostenson, Daria Plumb, and Jennifer Walsh

In this installment of Under the Radar, we will discuss Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and Burn by Heath Gibson from Flux

FLUX: (fluks) n. 1. Constant or frequent change; fluctuation 2. A new imprint of Llewellyn dedicated to fiction for teens. http://www.fluxnow.com  

 Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Nineteen-year-old Gabe is finally living life as his real self. Elizabeth was just clothes and a body—his soul is Gabe.

Many things happen in the summer after Elizabeth graduates from high school and makes the existence of “Gabe” known to his best friend Paige, he also tells his mom, dad and brother Pete, and “ My neighbor, my idol, fellow music geek, the oldest DJ in the universe—John.” Only John doesn’t give it much thought perhaps because his friendship with Gabe is built on a bonding interest in music and radio. John got Gabe a late night DJ spot which Gabe calls Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. He and Paige are Gabe’s lifelines particularly when Gabe is outed by someone from school.

(As the main character is only referred to as Gabe, in our discussion we will use that name and the pronoun “he” for this character.)

We need to discuss Gabe’s gender diversity. It is not the only issue in the book— maybe it is for some–but it is the taboo issue for many readers/classroom teachers. In Gabe’s mind he has lived in a foreign body all of his life. The doctor who visually labeled him female did not know any better. No one did.

cj: Considering the fact that the human body is made up of billions, trillions of cells—blood cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, brain cells, bone cells, and subdivisions in all of those. Why is it so difficult to believe that gender could get mixed up?  I do not want to make this sound simple because I cannot begin to understand how difficult life is for a person who has been wrongly labeled, but I simply do not find it impossible to believe.

DARIA: I do see Gabe’s gender diversity as the main issue in this book. The central conflict Gabe faces is navigating and defining his “new” (though not to him) identity and how the people around him (parents, friends, classmates, listeners, etc.) are reacting to it. However, I wouldn’t label this a “problem novel” or an issue book, because Cronn-Mills does a nice job of presenting us with a well-rounded character in Gabe

During a classroom visit from Dr. Jennifer Buehler the other day, one of my students said that reading YA novels has made her more sympathetic to what other people might be going through and that her reading has made her more tolerant of people that she otherwise might have picked on or judged. This is an important purpose of fiction because it allows us to safely experience the life of another person. Many students also talked about the importance of being able to relate to a story in some way when they are allowed to choose their own books. One reason I find YA novels to be so valuable for my students is that they are coming-of-age stories, often written in the first person point-of-view of a teen, which provides characters with whom they can connect in some way. Many teen readers will be able to relate to some part of Gabe’s interest in music, his struggle to define his identity, and his excitement about graduating from high school and transitioning into a different life, even if they can’t initially wrap their heads around the idea of feeling as if they’d been born in the wrong body. If I was teaching this book, that’s where I would start, rather than making Gabe’s gender the main issue. I would eventually segue into discussions of what it means to be transgender and transitioning, but I’d come to it in a more roundabout way once students felt that they had a connection with Gabe..

Classroom teachers and/or librarians who choose to recommend this book do need to be mindful the fact that some people will view Gabe’s diversity as something that is objectionable or “taboo”. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t choose this book for classroom use and/or use it for individual student reading, but it is important to be informed and to be sure to have rationales in place before introducing the novel to students.

Sean: I like Daria’s point about Gabe’s gender identity as the central conflict in the novel, but the novel itself not being labeled a “problem novel” due to the rich character development. I appreciated the humility of the concluding author’s note where Kirstin Cronn-Mills offers what amounts to an apology to future readers, should the terms of her discussion of gender identity fall out of fashion. What really struck me about the book was how often Gabe’s worst fears about how others might react upon learning the complexities of his gender identity did not always come to pass. The many shades of reactions between unconditional acceptance to open hostility are quite marvelous to behold, and mirror the spectrum of reactions YA readers will have to Gabe … which makes it an ideal vehicle for fostering critical conversations about gender identity.

Jen:  As a middle school teacher, I have seen the issue of gender identity evolve over the course of my 25 years at the same level.  It was obvious to many teachers which students might have gender identity issues in the 8th grade, but socially it was taboo to label anyone or have them come out any earlier than high school or college.  This was simply because students did not have the correct language or were not mature enough to handle those matters.  But all of that has changed.  This year, several openly gay young men were in my class, and last year one girl opely identified as a boy.  She took issue when I split the class by gender to debate a topic because she didn’t know which side to choose.  In truth, I had never had to deal with transgender issues in the classroom in the past simply because they were too young to articulate what they felt. But, I am literally excited to see the culture of my school change into one that seems more in tune with the world and its issues of gender identity, gay marriage and people who are transgender.

As our society grows and becomes more accepting of all people, these issues come up and are dealt with.  Several students in my class have two mothers or two fathers.  It’s not as taboo as it used to be and I am happy to read Gabe as a character and thrilled that there is a YA book dealing with this complex issue.

Themes

“If radio is the medium of the ugly person, then I can live my life as a voice and the world will be perfect” (p. 1).

This line tells us so much and so little. How has its meaning changed now that you have finished reading the book?

Bucky: It depends on what you want to celebrate. All of us are ugly. Or, we have ugly elements. My guess is among this group, we all appreciate voice too. If I consider this quote with big “V” voice in mind, I like it. The idea of being just enough “out there” as you want to be yet retaining enough spectrality to connect and detach appeals to me. That’s unrealistic, though, right? Inevitably, the voice is connected to the body, and accountability comes to the person and not the words. Even for D.J.’s, though they may be able to live the illusion better or longer than most. If we always wear masks for in-person social interactions, perhaps radio is the mask for the voice–it is appealing but limiting, a sort of ivory tower or fortress of solitude. The sanctum sanctorium is fine so long as one doesn’t spend all their time there, right? I like the connect-disconnect paradox inherent in radio, and it serves as a similar safe space for Gabe. Just see what happens when he breaks the barrier and D.J.s during the competition. He’s not nearly as successful. But, he’s going to have to be more public and physically present in the world eventually if he hopes to have a healthy life (I say from behind my keyboard, hundred of miles away from you all and not particularly eager to talk to anyone with whom I am in walking distance). I think that will be the defining dynamic for him as we leave the pages: Will he reconcile the embracing ephemera of a psuedo-reality which keeps him wombishly safe, or will he find ways to have that life and a fully in-and-of-the-world life as well. Will it be enough for him to have a voice on the airwaves, or will he realize they can’t support the weight of his complete identity alone?

cj: Bucky you have me thinking of the anonymity of cyber space and most particularly that movie, “Her” a man falls in love with the female voice on the computer’s operating system. Then I remember penpals back in the dark ages–that magical sense of being anonymous or being someone other than oneself particularly for adolsecents.

Sean: Gabe isn’t the only character attracted to the anonymity of a technologically mediated identity in the novel; on a much darker note, his tormentors vent their true feelings about him through Facebook. Ultimately, they’re not satisfied with cyber-bullying and attempt to carry out their threats in physical space. Although Gabe might crave the radio as the closest medium to achieving a 100% consilience between inner and outer identity, he’d also find the total lack of physical presence unsatisfying. As much as he desperately tracks the passage of hours every week between his radio shows, he also enjoys the intense feelings of desire that he feels for the characters he finds most attractive, and who express strong attraction to him. I don’t think I’ve seen the emotion of periphescence – the sudden, drug-like rush associated by the discovery of a new love or infatuation – depicted so well since reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which perhaps not coincidentally also deals with discrepancies between sex, gender and sexual orientation. Appropriately enough, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children depicts both the A-side and the B-side of Gabe’s professed ideal of personality/identity separated from body.

 

Music: A Two-Part Question

The theme of music from the oldies to the latest hits is almost another character in this book.  Did it add a greater setting to the book?

Jon: I loved the references to music sprinkled throughout the book, especially because I remember for myself how important music was to me as a teenager (Bono seemed to know exactly how I was feeling most of the time). I see the same connections for my teenage children. After reading the opening chapters, I even revisited some Elvis songs I have had in my iTunes library for who knows how long but haven’t played recently. I like the subtle connections between Elvis–who broke new ground in music–and Gabe, who hopes to break new ground in his own life or even in the radio industry. What the music did for me in this book, too, is to build a connection with Gabe and some of his feelings, and I really appreciated how it gave him a means to build relationships (not just with John but with others out there listening to Gabe’s show).

Bucky: Jon’s comments remind me of an activity from Kelly Gallagher we sometimes do in my Teaching Writing class. Students are fond of the “My Favorite Mistake” writing prompt. As an off-color joke, I tell students “If your favorite mistake is in the room, you might want to write about your second favorite mistake.” Music is viscera — well, maybe Proustian is a better word — in that a given song or lyric can conjure up so much from our memories. I’m reminded of those videos where Alzheimer’s patients perk up at hearing songs from their era. Having Gabe and his mentor love so many kinds of music and having knowledge on so many artists and genres is brilliant strategy from the author, because there will be few people who can read the book and not connect with at least one of the melodically-mentioned intertextualities.

DARIA: Whenever I read a book that includes so many song titles I always wish for an accompanying playlist, so I that can have an experience similar to that of the character in the story (if you’re interested, you can find a 17 1/2 hour playlist for this book here: http://playlists.net/beautiful-music-for-ugly-children-playli). For Gabe, music has been his lifeline; it connects him to John (who is a totally kick-ass mentor), allows him to express himself in ways nothing else will, and will provide him with a future career. Almost all teens will be able to relate to Gabe’s obsession with music. Teens define themselves with the music they choose to listen to; it informs their speech, the way they dress, and even the people they hang out with. My students even spend hundreds of dollars on “systems” for their cars so that they can listen to their music at ear-splitting, window-rattling volumes.

When teaching this book, I would ask kids to create a five song playlist similar to the one Jon and Gabe submit for the DJ competition. Students could choose their own themes for the playlist, or you could ask them to make a playlist that best captures who each is as a person.

Sean: Sweet! Thanks for sharing that link, Daria! I have a long vacation coming up and could stand to add some fresh music to the portable jukebox that my phone has become. And Bucky, you’re absolutely on target about the role music plays in connecting the reader to the story – at least this reader. JL Records in West Lafayette, Indiana was my second classroom for much of my adolescence; I walked myself there at least two or three times a week to browse through countless bins of used vinyl and absorb the cracked wisdom of the aging hippie owner. All of Gabe’s scenes with John reminded me of those many glorious afternoons in the company of my own musical Falstaff.

Jen:  The music here did become a character to me. It became the character with the ever changing moods and faces.  I especially loved the Elvis thread that wove into all of the chapter titles (and the chapters!).  I love the idea of the 5 song playlist for kids who read the novel, Daria.  I also LOVE the concept of the B side and I think any teen could relate to that B side (after I told and showed them what that meant).  Personally, I would love to see kids use music to define who they are and their different moods.  I was listening to an interview on NPR today with the musician Kishi Bashi, who was classically trained yet writes indie music and records himself playing different strains of a song on his violin, one on top of the other.  It was like no music I’d ever heard before.  He said: (and I’m completely paraphrasing)  We have so much music around us in America and we all have our favorite kinds that define us.  But I want to bring my sound to Japan, where they aren’t as discerning and will listen to anything, which all sounds the same.

I really loved the way Gabe’s shows were thematic in nature, well thought-out and interestingly borne out to the public.  Some of the songs I would never have placed under that “theme” but the way the author put it in there really worked.  This is definitely a music lover’s book!  As an aside:  I LOVED that Gabe put down on the job application that he would listen to Britney Spears and the owner said he couldn’t hire him.  Not just music, here, but good music and a large appreciation for it.

cj: This was to be the second part of the question, but we are already discussing it.

 

A and B sides (Page 41)

So tell me, listeners. . .  are you an A side or a B side?

*    *    *

I think all of us have our A and B sides, even though digital music has kind of wrecked that idea.

*    *    *

Personally, I like my B side, which is tough, because everybody else likes my A side. But I’m sticking to it.
cj: I would love to give this question to my students, or anyone else I honestly wanted to know better. In college we called it the “public persona vs the inner self”,  and the more these two parts of a person overlap, the more authentic an individual is. Gabe is working on being a very authentic person, like his mentor, John. So many people of any age, worry most about their A side.

Jon: I thought this was, without a doubt, the coolest part of this book. I’m also reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending right now where the narrator explores how we build “selves” that help protect us from pain or harm, and I see those two ideas as connected. My heart goes out to Gabe who has felt for so long that he can’t reveal his B side and be accepted or loved, and in some ways we all have a B side that we keep hidden because of similar fears. To really love someone else, though, we have to know and embrace their B side (not love them “in spite of” that B side). I’m also intrigued by this idea of authenticity and its implications for our own happiness or effectiveness; since I’m working with future English teachers, I’m curious about how having students explore some of their B side would help them be more authentic teachers. For instance, as a teacher I’m a bit egocentric and kind of a control-freak; those aren’t often traits that we’d like to broadcast to other people. Being honest with myself about those traits, though, helps me recognize their potential to both help me and hurt me as a teacher working with students.

Bucky: First off, a few years ago Marvel published a 3-issue YA comic series called the Craptacular B-Sides which could fit with this text in any number of weird ways. I never thought I’d say that about that series, either, lol. Sometimes there is a reason comics are called “stand-alone.” Diversion aside, I too found this to be an interesting aspect of the book. I’m a Gemini, so I’m used to the idea of duality. I’ve worked with enough academics to be well aware of the Janus, and I get that Gabe is artfully noticing the multiples of image and persona. But, as I alluded to in previous lines, I hope Gabe is able to see life and identity as more like a kooshball and less like a coin: consisting of multiple realities and possibilities and directions, not just dualities. He’s challenging singularities, but I think his coming of age moment might come when he’s able to challenge binaries too. We see him on the cusp of that in this book.

DARIA: This image/concept was one of my favorite parts of the book, as well. The discussion of the difference between a person’s A side and B side is something that students could discuss or write about, not only in relation to themselves, but to other people they know, and to other book characters as well (in fact, it would make an excellent Reader Response Journal prompt). The only thing that might be problematic for teens is that an album, specifically a single that has an actual B side, is a pretty foreign concept to them. However, I don’t think it would be difficult to get them past that reference to the real “meat” of the question.

If I was teaching this as a class novel, I’d also bring in information about Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development so we could talk about the primary crisis of adolescence, which is identity vs. role confusion.

Sean: If I were lucky enough to select the perfect occasion to teach with this novel, I’d choose a course on adolescent psychology, and I’d definitely pull in Erikson. I would also use it as an introduction to Jung’s theories of personality development, particularly the process of individuation through integrating masculine (animus) and feminine (anima) natures. In fact, given the rapid proliferation of nuanced gender identities more openly expressed by adolescents in recent years than any other era in American history, Jungian theory may never have been more relevant for educators and others working with adolescents than now.

Jen:  I completely agree with the Psychology class being a great place to read this novel.  Years ago (over 20 now) I read a book suggested to me (ironically) by a priest.  It dealt with homosexuality and talked about sexual identity on a continuum.  No one is on a polar end of the “totally hetero” or “totally homsexual” end, but we all fall somewhere the middle.  This theory, combined with Jungian personality development and Erikson’s work would introduce students to an interesting look at their own “B” sides

cj: I feel like we have traveled back to the 60s and 70s (well, if everything is cyclical, I guess it is about time)! This quote saved my sanity when I was a college student: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”  (from Demian by Hermann Hesse)

Jen, there is a 2013 book out called My New Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein which looks at that continuum.

 

Bullying

Jon: I know this sounds simplistic (or maybe clichéd), but I think bullying decreases radically when we start to see the other as a human being rather than simply an other. After finishing the book, I can certainly say that I see Gabe more clearly as a person, with real emotions and real pain and real struggles. This book is an example of the recent studies we have seen displaying evidence that reading literary fiction helps develop empathy. What I couldn’t help but dwell on is why those boys reacted so violently to Gabe? I understand that there’s an underlying fear in such a hostile reaction, but I am not sure I totally grasp what underlies such behavior.  This could be an important avenue to explore in studying this book in a classroom setting.

Bucky: Agreed, and “The Other” and “Othering” might be the exact themes for such an inquiry or guided topic. In my YAL courses, we discuss Lacanian notions of othering — the homelette, the mirror stage, etc — and how some othering is good in a postmodern sense that we can’t know ourselves except in relation to other entities — but also how othering dehumanizes. Othering is pervasive in YAL and teachers should use it permutations to their advantage.

DARIA: First, I’m going to say this even though it probably won’t be popular. Kids are tired of talking about bullying. The general consensus of the students in my school (who are both the bullied and the bullies) is that there isn’t anything grown-ups can do about bullying; it happens, everybody knows it happens, it’s going to continue to happen, and that’s all there is to it. I’m not saying they’re totally right, because I certainly believe that the adults in a school building can set the tone, but it is their perception and to some degree, I agree. The real change has to come from the kids. That’s where books like both of these can be helpful. They give teens a chance to walk in another person’s shoes and as I mentioned earlier, at least one of my students recognizes and can verbalize that she has become a kinder and more tolerant person from reading YA books that provide her with windows into other people’s lives. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

cj: Daria, your students are right where most teens, teachers, and many others are—the word bully has become almost a joke. Schools start too little too late. Bully prevention should start with respect programs in preschool, by middle school all we can do is slap on bandages, by high school students have either grown up or become locked into these behaviors and will carry all their lives. We look at the problem backwards and we mistakenly think it is a school issue. Bullying/harassment does not stop at high school or college graduation, it goes on forever–look at our congress. Bullying is alive and well in Washington D. C. But in our classrooms we can honor respect, giving it, expecting it, supporting it — and most importantly we read books that promote understanding and empathy.

 

Mentioned Works and Links

Barnes, Julian.The Sense of an Ending. Vintage Books: New York, 2011.

Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook. Routledge, 2013.

Craptacular B Sides

Erikson, Erik: http://psychology.about.com/library/bl_psychosocial_summary.htm

Eugenides, Jeffery. Middlesex: Picador; 2007.

Hesse, Hermnn. Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse. Introduction by Thomas Mann. Bantam Book; (1974)

Hyde, Maggie and Michael McGuinness. Introducing Jung: A Graphic Guide. Icon Books, originally published in 1992.

Plato: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/

Burn by Heath Gibson

Main character Willian “Wee Wee” Tucker and his family live in a small town, Coosa Creek, Alabama, where everyone knows everyone else and where his father is the Baptist Pastor. The family also contains his mother, an active alcoholic, and his not-openly-gay (for the beginning of the book) younger brother. Passtor Tucker is a strick man, father, and pastor–showing the most compassion to his congregation. Will has joined the volunteer fire department and been a very active member–in many ways. He set fires. On the back cover is this short summation by Will:

Salvation by Fire

The best thing to do for someone who thinks

he’s lost his whole life is to make him feel like

it’s been given back to him.

That’s why I can do this.

Fire can fix it.

Coosa Creek, Alabama is just a small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone’s business, at least they think they do.

 

DARIA: For anyone not familiar with small town life, this town (which is almost a character in its own right) might seem like a caricature, but I’d say that the hypocrisy and “gossip-y-ness” of it is fairly realistic.

Bucky: Yeah, I’m from a relatively small town too, and the depictions felt accurate.

Jen:  I agree with the depiction of the small town.  It did, however, remind me of the small town of Gatlin, TN in Beautiful Creatures as well.  And, LOTS of carefully kept secrets behind the doors.

cj: I also grew up in a small town, seven miles from where we live now and yes, everyone knew I was one of the Bott Sisters. We couldn’t escape anything as everyone kept an eye on us which was a bit claustophobic. Now I look back on it and realize it was a great place to grow up because with everyone watching us, we were safe–and well behaved!

Characters

The Tucker family
The concept of a family seems to fit here–mother, father, 2 children–sons. So far this looks like an ordinary American family. Under further investigation that is not true. We meet this family during a time of crisis that only Will is aware of.  This is probably one of the more dysfunctional families in fiction.

William, “Wee Wee” Tucker, elder brother
Will is 5’3” and gets call Wee Wee by his family and and everyone in town. A seemingly honest, honorable, and helpful young man, Will works at the local grocery packing bags and gathering carts and has joined the town’s small Coosa Creek (Alabama) Volunteer Fire Department and.  He is efficient in fighting fires and a very dependable volunteer.

cj: Will seemed exactly like what a preacher’s son should/would be in that he is considerate of nearly everyone, however his way of “taking care of others” may make sense to him, but certainly cannot be considered sane.

Sean: What was really striking to me about Will, as compared to most protagonists in contemporary YA, is how salient his faith is to his identity. He grounds much of his outward personality and behavior in an honest Christian worldview. Of course, as the novel unfolds and layers of his personality are peeled away, readers may question how true to Jesus’ teachings Will’s actions are.

DARIA: I had trouble with Will. I did not find him to be a sympathetic character. I know he eventually comes to believe (or at least convinces himself) that what he’s doing is for the greater good (on page 92-93 when pondering DJ’s accident he says, “maybe the fire wasn’t a tragedy, maybe it was a gift.”), but I can’t get past the selfishness of his motives. He’s got some difficult stuff going on in his life, but as a reader, he just made me angry. I was also left feeling like his fire-setting behavior comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t appear to have any lead-up (there aren’t references to any early pyromania), nor is it given as his reason for joining the fire department. I get that it’s his way of gaining some control in his otherwise disorganized life, but there’s no new trigger or stressor to cause it, so it doesn’t seem realistic to me (but maybe I’ve just watched too much Criminal Minds).

Bucky: He’s his father’s son. A little more open-minded about things but still, at his essence, a bit of a control monger. Not only does he think he’s doing the right thing, but there’s a private thrill in being a hero, in controlling a situation and seeing how people who don’t know he’s manipulating things react. Definitely, there’s a selfishness to his motives, rooted in control and power and ego and delusion.

Jen:  I felt let down that Will was engaging in so much unwarranted “pyromaniac” behavior simply to have other characters notice certain situations– such as burning the building where the homeless man was living.  It seemed as if this was his way of dealing with the stress of his family, but he never came to reconcile with himself that it was wrong.

cj: Yes, he is his father’s son. While his attempts to take care of other people are dangerous, in his mixed-up mind, he has a goal. Will wants the community to help the old man drinking himself to death so he creates the need for them to do just that. As the book continues Will’s motives become more self-serving. As I often do, I wonder what would happen to characters if the book skipped ahead a few months. My guess is that with help, Will would come to a reconciliation–but I know nothing about working with pyromanics.

Steven, 13 months younger brother
Steven plays the organ for church services and seems to be good at just about everything he does, including his prom coming out.

cj: Steven has courage and is very stubborn, though his way of doing things may not have been for the best or in the right order. I like that Will has Steven there. I can’t imagine how either of them could have existed without the other one in this dysfunctional family. Steven is probably the most normal of the lot.

Bucky: Interesting that by the end of the novel, in this small town where there seem to be good reasons to fear being someone engaging in “aberrant” behavior, Steve may be the favored son among the townsfolk as well.

Jen:  Steve was probably one of the most likeable and “true” characters here.  He knew who he was and what he believed in.  Having grown up in a small town, I can imagine the reaction of a prom “coming out”.  One of the better placed characters, I believe.

Jon: One of the things I liked about Steve is how he helped explore the line between courage and naivete. He is a bold character (or maybe stubborn, depending on how you’d define that term), but Will worries that he’s underestimating the potential negative reactions to his boldness. This tension between boldness and caution is something anyone in a minority has to confront when making a choice about how “public” to be. I appreciated the way Steve allowed me to consider the angles of this issue.

Samantha
New to the school, Samantha is African American, does not care much for rules and is totally her own person.

cj: She certainly gave the book some pizzazz!

DARIA: I like Samantha. I agree with cj that she gives the story some pizzazz and she also allows the reader to see Coosa Creek from an outsider’s perspective. I like that she never becomes Will’s love interest. It’s nice to see a platonic friendship in a YA book.

Sean: If there’s a theme that unites Flux titles we have read for this column, it’s that everyone has a B-side, and Samantha certainly embodies that in a much lighter vein than Will does. I second Daria’s welcoming of a platonic friendship at the heart of Burn, rather than a romance. Given the novel’s Deep South setting, I had a sense of where the central conflict was going to go when Samantha was introduced, but was surprised by the novel’s B-side.

cj: Sean, does Samantha have a B-side or only an A side? She seems like a ‘what you see is what you get’ person.

Jen:  I, too, liked the fact that Samantha and Will never became more than friends, but by that point I just figured Will would be unable, as a character, to handle any more controversy in his life let alone a bi-racial relationship in a small, conservative town.

Mandy
A fun-loving charcter who always seems to be in control, she flirts with Will and most other boys.

DARIA: I didn’t know what to make of Mandy. Some of the time, she was intentionally cruel to Will, and other times I thought that maybe she was just oblivious about his feelings for her. She certainly had that perfect, popular, “golden girl” feel to her, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much when Samantha put her in her place.

cj: Mandy seemed so lost, almost like she wasn’t sure who she was suppose to be, or maybe she tried too hard to be what a small town pretty girl was suppose to be.

 

Mr. Simmons, science teacher
One of those rare teachers who works hard to involve all his students, Mr. Simmons did not let anyone escape his notice.

cj: I admired this man for being an excellent teacher. He involved all his students and was willing to look ridiculous to involve them.

DARIA: I liked that about him, too…it made me wish that I could have a little more of that fearlessness in my own teaching (though I did think the caveman outfit may have been taking it a bit far).

Jen:  I liked that Mr. Simmons was an experiential teacher and got the kids out “doing” something, but I thought his firing represented the narrow-mindedness of the entire town.  He had warned the kids about the safety aspects of the experiment.  I was hoping it was a slight nod, on the part of the author, to show how well-meaning teachers can sometimes be railroaded by parents who are “out to get them”.  Great representation of the current trend to blame the teacher for all ills.

 

The Chief
As the man-in-charge of the town’s volunteer fire department, the Chief  knew his town and the people in it and was even a bit of a detective.

DARIA: Overall, I liked him, but I did find it to be somewhat weird that he didn’t suspect Will much earlier than he did.

Bucky:  I think it’s possible he did suspect Will early on but just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe out of disappointment. Maybe out of worry about what it would mean to Will’s family and their standing in the community. Maybe because he wanted Will to be one of the crew with real, appropriate passion, skill, and drive. I’m thinking there’s some denial in the Chief for a bit.

DARIA: Though it’s somewhat off topic, here, did anybody else find it strange that they’d let a high school student be on the volunteer fire department? In my small hometown, there were guys who had  basically been raised around the fire department because they had dads, grandfathers, and uncles who were firefighters, but I don’t know any people who were ever allowed to actually join until after they’d graduated.

Jen:  Daria, I thought that was very odd, too, along with the fact that he just down right got a weird thrill out of it. For the wrong reasons, perhaps?  I was trying to come to grips with why someone would set a fire and then show up to help put it out?

 

Mother Tucker
A stay-at-home mom though more like a recluse, Mrs.Tucker is an active alcoholic and really good at the “guilt/fear combo.”

cj: I was so disappointed with the incomplete portrayal of the mom as I wanted to know what hardships she had faced, but she fits the alcoholic profile quite well in that she is a master guilt manipulator.

Jon: cj, I agree with you. I wondered what tragedy lay behind her alcoholism or whether she sought escape simply because her life had become mundane, full of hypocrisy, or what. Why did she want to escape?

Daria: I wanted to know more about her, too. I know YA books don’t generally focus on the adult characters, but I was wondering what had happened. Based on some of the references Will made about her being friends with Mandy’s mom, it seemed as if there might have been a time when she went out, had friends, and either wasn’t drinking or wasn’t drinking as much as she was by the time we meet her.

Jen:  Ditto to the curiosity.  I really wanted her back story in order to understand her character.

Father Tucker
As the town’s Baptist Pastor, he played that role everywhere, in church, at home, and in the community.

Jon: His portrayal bothered me a bit at the same time as it didn’t surprise me. I’m bothered somewhat because the portrayals of religious/spiritual people in YA lit are often one-sided like this: a stereotypical, hypocritical, hard-nosed zealot who can’t practice what he preaches (i.e., loving others). While I know these people exist, but they’re over-represented at times in YA lit and that concerns me. What I would find far more interesting (and challenging) is the portrayal of a father who, though deeply religious, struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the love he feels for his son. But given how dysfunctional this family is, perhaps that’s too much to hope for in the fictional world that’s been created for this book.

cj: I agree with that Jon, such a father would have been a wonderful addition to the father image in YA books. It is also interesting to speculate how such a father as the one presented, contributed to the roles of everyone else in the family. It would have been a completely different book–so I don’t fault the author for writing the book he was invested it. I

Jen:  Was anyone else reminded of the mother in Speak?  The if-you-ignore-it, it-will-go-away parent is too prevalent in YA lit.  However, perhaps these characters are portrayed in this way in order to let the teen characters shine through?  I didn’t like the dad/pastor at all and wasn’t surprised by his reactions to any of the events in the plot. I would like to see more pastors like the guy in the Korean church in Sorta Like A Rock Star.  (Matthew Quick, Little Brown)  That man was amazing!

Sean: I second your discomfort with the portrayal of the father.  As the son of a minister myself, I long for more positive, multidimensional depictions of people of faith in YA lit, and kept hoping for him to experience a transformation along with Will in the book. It may be too much to hope for, given the Southern Baptist context, but I was heartened somewhat that his sons were able to provide some counterweight as people of faith portrayed in a positive light, at least initially.

cj: This man is interesting to me though also horrifying, he is a guiding father to the people in his church more than to his sons. He must believe in honesty, but he hides so much of his life from others. The turmoil in him must make him very fragil. How will he survive his family’s secrets being exposed to the town? What would be his next chapter?

 

Language

cj: Gibson’s novel BURN is rich with characters, word wisdoms, and conflicts. Oddly, I connected with the words more than any particular character. Perhaps the words became the main character for me, or maybe the author’s voice is just that strong. On my second read through this book, the author’s words coming out of Will amazed me.

The following are quotes from Will about fire that are woven through the story almost like flames. (FYI, from Wikipedia: Pyromania is an impulse control disorder in which individuals repeatedly fail to resist impulses to deliberately start fires, in order to relieve tension or for instant gratification. Pyromaniacs start fires to induce euphoria, and often fixate on institutions of fire control like fire stations and firefighters. Pyromania is a type of impulse control disorder, along with kleptomaniacompulsive gamblingtrichotillomania and others.)

 

Page 104:

It’s such a nice sight. It’s doing just what I want.

And the sound is amazing. Pops, crackles, and the air rushing whoosh of the fire consuming its food is better than any song I’ve heard. This is my song.

I move closer to the fire because I have to. I soak the heat into my skin, proving I don’t have to be afraid. I’m not going to end up like DJ because I’ve got this under control.

At the prom as he watches Brett and Mandy dance (p. 124):

I figure the friction will set Mandy’s dress on fire, which might not be a bad thing. Maybe people aren’t going to be different until you give them the chance. And that can start with a spark.

When his father baptized people (p. 125):

I do this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Trinity. Kind of like oxygen, heat, and fuel.

cj: This last one gave me chills, that Will could parallel these two and think this the next time he starts a fire. He believe his fires cleanse. Is he equating his act with a baptism?

Jon: I was also struck by this quote and the moment, and I was reminded of it late in the book when Will goes into his bedroom. What is his motivation for what I assume is going to be a destructive, final burning? He seems to suggest that his earlier motivations in starting fires are about trying to bring people together or draw people’s attention to more important things in life. So I could see some religious symbolism in this final act–an attempt to cleanse his family of its weaknesses, its hypocrisy?

Bucky: Yes. He sees fire as a unifier, a purifier. In his mind, he’s not destroying, not solely. He’s providing a catalyst for healing and salvation.

Jen:  The irony is in the fact that he believes burning will purify–and heal all aspects of his life.  In order to live, we must destroy and rebuild?

 

Page 127:

You make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. Psalm 104:4

Sean: Jon, I think this is the answer to the question you posed with the previous quote. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God is described as a “consuming fire,” both figuratively and literally, as in the case of his appearance to Moses as a burning bush. I read Will’s motivation throughout the novel, and especially in his final act, as a harsh ministry, attempting to purify a social order that had strayed from Jesus’ commandment that his followers love one another as God first loved them. I continually imagined Will articulating the climactic words of W.H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” as he set fires: “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.”

Bucky: Sean, “A Harsh Ministry” would have made a great subtitle for the book!

Jon: I like what you’re saying here, Sean. It makes me wonder about his suicidal tendency as well: What are we to make of Will’s self-destructive tendencies? Even if he didn’t end up perishing in this final conflagration, he’s engaged in some very destructive behaviors by setting increasingly larger/more dangerous fires. The Chief is on to him at the end and the truth for Will is going to come out, most likely. So is this a way of Will escaping responsibility for this behavior as much as it is an attempt to “purify.” The pyromania is Will’s own secret, and part of me wonders if he is uncomfortable with the consequences of it being revealed, especially since that reveal would destroy the heroic image he’s been able to cultivate.

 

Page 132:

The classroom is almost completely filled with fire. I wish I could stay for a while. I’m not afraid. I almost want to grab the flames and hold them in my hand. Chief said you can’t catch it, but I’m not sure about that.

Jon: I like what this quote reveals about Will and his motivations for starting fires, especially in contrast to my comment above about religious imagery in his fire-setting. Moments like this in the book made me see his fire-starting as also motivated by self-interest; certainly he gets a rush out of the act, and he garners praise and attention. That’s part of what really drew me to this book: a compelling portrait of a young man we wouldn’t normally feel sympathetic to, but whose problems and complexities make for a fascinating study.

cj: I agree, Will is such a complex character. He has found a way to satisfy his need to contribute to the lives of those around him by manipulation, by using fire to bring attention and sometimes resolution to a character or situation, at least in the beginning, then he liked being able to manipulate with this fires too much. Again this need to control many things reminds me of his father.

Bucky: I was sympathetic to him at times. As someone who has felt he’s needed to hold back a lot of things over the last seven or eight years, I know the inner fires build and are hard to control. Will is wily enough to find ways to manipulate situations such that he orchestrates chaos and order, event and aftermath. If it weren’t so dangerous, so stupid, and so unhealthy, it’d almost be admirable how he juggles all the elements of his obsessions. Well, that’s pushing it, but there were times when I could feel him. He found an exhilarating outlet, which is enviable. Yes, enviable in concept but not in actualization.

Pages 139-140:

I don’t know of anything worthwhile that don’t cause a little pain. Or a lot.

Jen:  So, in response to the entire collection of quotes, I wanted to mention that I thought the burning theme was the best woven part of the plot and characters.  The concept of “burning” in all of these contexts (i.e:  burning in hell, burning for real, burning to tell your parents the truth about your sexual orientation, burning so much on the inside it drives one to drink,  burning desire to save the world, etc. ) is what truly tied the novel together.  While some of the characters seemed very one dimensional, I thought that they were all “burning” in different ways.  This characteristic either drove them apart  or towards other characters.  It was the most deftly woven part of the novel and what kept me thinking while reading.

cj: Jen, thanks for pointing that out. The author certainly did choose the perfect title.