“Your New School Library“ is a new column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.
My reading recommendations for this month include two outstanding novels by debut authors and another solid tale from queer-YA queen Julie Anne Peters. All three somehow deal with loss and grief — but don’t worry; there are funny bits, too.
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, Emily Horner, Dial Books (2010)
As the title implies, we meet our protagonist, Cass, while she is still in the process of mourning the sudden death of her childhood best friend, Julia, in a car accident. Julia was one of those brilliant geniuses who, in addition to her smarts, also possessed a sharp sense of humor and natural social graces. The type of person who is able to attract both the popular kids and the geeks. The type of person we all wish we were, but whom we only actually meet in life occasionally.
Cass’ process of dealing with her grief is two-fold. Her personal journey is a literal, two-wheeled one: she gets on her bike, headstrong and illogical, and starts to ride from their Illinois town to California, Julia’s ashes secured in Tupperware on the back, so she can take Julia to all those places they talked about going, that she never got to see, to the ocean.
The other exercise in grief involves drama, ninjas, and the rest of Julia’s closest friends back home when Cass finally returns. They discover that prior to her death, Julia had been working in a serious way on a project they had all only just joked about, one of those crazy ideas that you conjure up with friends but that no one actually normally carries out — unless you are one those funny, brilliant genius types. This idea was a musical entitled Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad, an idea born of a typical movie night with Julia and their friends. After viewing Rent and a Japanese ninja film, Zatoichi, back-to-back, Julia had the sudden, important realization that there needed to be a musical about ninjas.
“And there would be a song called ‘Seasons of Blood.'”
(See? Funny bits.)
When Julia’s boyfriend, Ollie, discovers Julia’s libretto and score to Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad — along with the notes: “P.S. THIS IS NOT A REAL DRAFT, SO STOP READING, OKAY? P.P.S. I REALLY MEAN IT, WAIT FOR THE SECOND DRAFT OR I KILL YOU.” — he decides that it must be put into production and performed to a real audience, and it must be done by them, the ones who knew Julia best, even if she unfortunately never had time to make that second draft. Cass, never an actress, takes up residence in the basement making props and helping with costumes and sets, along with Heather — the arch-nemesis girl who publicly made fun of Cass for being a dyke all through middle school, who has maybe changed a little, who Cass against all her instincts may or may not develop a little crush on maybe.
The narrative jumps back and forth between the solo bike trek and the ninja musical production, which can be slightly jarring until you get used to it, although I might have felt this way just because my own disposition pulls me more towards the solo bike trip portion, and I kept wanting even more of her lonely, athletic angst. The Ninja Deathsquad storyline though, interestingly, is not only frequently a nice bit of comic relief at the same time that it’s full of sincere heart, but ends up being where Cass really finds herself some peace.
I knew I would like Cass from one of the first pages when, after Heather throws her a CD wallet and implores her to pick something, she deadpans,
“But I wasn’t going to go pawing through her CD collection so that we could have a secret musical soulmates thing just because we both liked Arcade Fire. So I handed it back to her.”
She’s a realistic mix of jaded without being pretentious, intensely smart and independent while also insecure and constantly wondering if the people around her are only being nice to her out of pity. Her sexuality, as well, is nuanced in what I thought to be a lovely way. Her lesbianism is never really a question and isn’t the main point of the story. This isn’t a coming out story or a “Do I like boys or girls??” story; it’s simply a “What do all these emotions inside my head and heart mean relative to the people in my life and who I am?” story, particularly when it comes to her true emotions and her grief over Julia.
“I just wanted to find some meaning in the strange things running around inside my heart. I wanted to be able to kneel down with my face in the dirt like an archaeologist and brush the dust off these memories and find out what was true underneath them. It seemed like the least I deserved, when everyone else seemed to have found their direction right away, while I was left wandering.”
Horner writes beautifully and honestly, shining light on both the pain and the joy that can come with grief and figuring out who you are just a little bit better, and I more than look forward to reading more from her. By the end of this novel, I felt genuinely moved, which may sound a bit cheesy, but that is what a book is supposed to do, and it was a reaction I hadn’t actually felt with a novel in far too long.