M+O 4Evr, Tonya Cherie Hegamin, Houghton Mifflin (2008)
Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin
If you put all three of the books in this month’s column on your “to-read” list (which I hope you do), I must warn you — this one is markedly different from the first two, both in style and tone. It’s also a few years older, but when I found it just recently and examined the cover and dust jacket I felt a small thrill. Finally, finally — I had found a lesbian young adult novel featuring two black protagonists. Are there other ones out there I’m missing? Please tell me if I am. I just feel sad that it took me this long to find one, and that even this one seems to have flown under the radar.
It’s a little book, less than 200 pages, but it packs in a lot of heartbreak and a lot of nuance. The love it describes between M and O isn’t clear-cut, isn’t delivered in a neat package.
Another warning: Marianne, the M in the equation of the title, dies. This isn’t too much of a spoiler since it happens early on in the narrative. At first, I sighed to myself in a slightly disappointed way, perhaps influenced by recently reading an excellent article by Laura Goode about the “dead or straight” trope in lesbian coming-of-age tales. (Some great, well-researched reviews of some classic lesbian lit in that article! Read it!)
But after we learn a little more about M’s wild heart, it seems like she had been on the road to tragedy for a while — and not necessarily just because she and O (Opal) grew up stealing kisses under a blackberry bush. This isn’t necessarily a lesbian running away from the burden of being a lesbian, but a teenage girl running away from the burden of being a teenage girl.
O is our narrator, and her entire life has been infused with M in a total, all-consuming way. Both practically raised by O’s grandmother, they are inseparable from ever since O can remember. Yet it is a connection that is more than good friends, more than just “love you like a sister” — there is something clearly deeper, but it’s something that seems to never be able to fully take off from the ground, to be fulfilled in the way that O absolutely aches for it to.
Indeed, as high school progresses, M pulls further and further away from O, from everyone — and there’s nothing O can do about it except hurt. And cling to her dream of taking M far away from their small Pennsylvania town one day soon, whisking her to California when she finally gets that full ride from Stanford — until there is that knock on her bedroom door, until M’s body is pulled from the ravine.
My favorite parts of this novel were learning about O’s family, such rich and realistic characters, as well as the tale of Hannah, a local historical legend of a runaway slave girl who M and O grow up hearing stories about. Hannah represents the determination in freedom and the commitment to love, and M and O think they sometimes see her running through the woods where they spend so much time. I liked how time periods shifted and swayed in the novel, giving us pieces of M and O’s history, along with Hannah’s, bit by bit in a unique narrative.
Yet overall, I felt like this book needed more space to breathe to really come into its own and gives these characters the full depth they deserved. M was such a mystical, powerful figure, yet I still feel like I never knew her well enough, never truly knew why she drew away from O and caused so much pain, why she disappeared in that ravine. I didn’t know O well enough, either, for that matter.
Still, the story it tells is different from any story I’ve reviewed here so far — the experience of two girls in a white town who must deal with hatred and prejudice in more than one way, in subtle ways and obvious ones. The weaving of contemporary love story with historical fiction is also wonderful and intriguing, and makes me curious to see what else Tonya Cherie Hegamin has in store. And publishers: keep bringing on the diversity, please. Thanks. Love, me.