Friday, June 29, 2018

American Heart: Haters Gonna Hate

Laura Moriarity’s American Heart—a dystopian YA novel which takes place in a near-future of Muslim internment, and which retells Huckleberry Finn as the story of a teenage girl trying to help an Iranian refugee reach Canada--has been the target of one of the more spectacularly ignorant campaigns in the annals of political correctness.

If you're not already familiar with the controversy, go ahead and read that link. And maybe also the New Yorker's rather savage take-down of Kirkus' behavior. I'll wait here.

Done?  Okay, then.

Young adult literature is near and dear to my own heart, and was crucial to my own development. I’m deeply aggravated to see it turned into a political football. 
And yet there’s some utility in what happened to American Heart. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Streisand Effect was in play here, as the campaign against the book brought it to the attention of thousands who would not otherwise have heard of it. As one of those thousands, I’ve been waiting for a while for a library copy to come available. This week, I finally had the opportunity to read it for myself.

I find American Heart to be quality, well-plotted YA.  I was surprised to find that the action beats were my favorite part of the book. Sarah-Mary is a resourceful protagonist; there were numerous episodes in which I found myself wondering "how are they going to get out of this one?" and was subsequently satisfied by the resolution. These moments keep the pages turning. Moriarty also has a special gift for portraying anticipatory dread--those dark, ugly moments in which the fate of the characters rests in the hands of a secondary character who may or may not know their secret, or who does know and may or may not choose to help them.

Of the public criticisms of the book, the one which seems to be most rooted in truth is the claim that Sadaf lacks agency. Indeed she does. We live in a world which frequently denies agency to people. I don't think that sanitizing that reality would improve the book. Nor would this be a better novel if the author were to disrupt the structure of the plot in order to create moments in which Sadaf becomes an action heroine. She makes the best use she can of the moments of agency she has, which serves the author's argument that we all should.

As a perspective character, Sarah-Mary is believably the product of her experiences and influences, and also of core qualities which exist in a place beyond society's reach. We watch as that core drives her towards a new set of experiences which lead her to develop new values. The transformation of the misnamed "Chloe" into Sadaf occurs not as an external reality, but within the scope of Sarah-Mary's perspective. This is her story, even if some readers wish it wasn't, and the exploration of her perspective has literary value. Critics of the author's perspective choice are asking for a different book rather than evaluating the one they're reading.

My own major criticism is the ending, which is driven by a deus ex machina involving a secondary character who would better have been left out entirely. Protagonists this clever deserved the opportunity to complete their journey under their own steam--or at least to have made their way to the location of Sadaf and Sarah-Mary's parting on their own.

So four stars for the book as a whole. And then subtract one for the ending. And then go grab that star that Kirkus took away because they chose to value the opinion of a baying mob over that of their hand-chosen Own Voices reviewer, and give it back to American Heart, which deserves it.

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