Nancy Garden,
The Year They Burned the Books
(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999)

I feel I should preface the review proper with a little twisting journey through what has led me to it, to give you a window into my state of mind. Since I've finally been released from academia, and therefore have time to read all of those books I'd intended to but couldn't because they were not part of my curriculum, my to-read lists have led me into some wonderful threads of storytelling. Although the range of my interests has resulted in everything from finally reading Carl Sagan to finishing my journey through the Jeanette Winterson canon, I recently sought out Tony Kushner's pair of plays Angels in America: Millenium Approaches and Perestroika.

Warmed by the chance to read work I'd intended to ever since the 1996 productions astounded Boston audiences, I was glad to discover the plays were as brilliant as I'd hoped. As often happens when a topic or author catches my attention, I started seeking reviews of plays as well as interviews with the playwright.

What does this all have to do with Nancy Garden's new book? Well, bear with me and I'll get there. Soon, even.

In an interview with Kushner by author Michael Cunningham, the two raised the question of gay-themed young adult fiction, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Both men expressed a desire to see more fiction dealing with gay kids rather than explaining gay adults.

At this point my brain took off, attempting to remember any YA books I'd read or even heard of with gay or bisexual characters. Aside from fantasy (Mercedes Lackey's Vanyel series and Tanya Huff's The Fire's Stone), I couldn't think of a single one.

Then the editor sent out a request for a review of Nancy Garden's The Year They Burned the Books. One easy way to tell how good the book was: I read it within 24 hours of receiving it.

(Garden's previous novel, Annie on my Mind, about two high school girls who fall in love, had been banned and then burned by protestors. The ensuing legal battle among the school administration, students, parents and faculty who objected to the action made it very clear that censorship is alive and well in America.)

What struck me first about Garden's The Year They Burned the Books was not the myriad issues discussed, though those points later provoked a strong and action-inspiring emotional response. Instead, I latched onto the tone, hearing in Garden's writing a familiar cadence which immediately pulled me back five years to high school. The characters acted and sounded as my friends and I had, and though Garden won't win any prizes for dense prose, her easy style and careful descriptions were also not juvenile or simple as many mistakenly suspect of YA fiction.

The story revolves around the staff of a small New England town's school newspaper, the Telegraph, and the controversy that arises around a newly implemented health curriculum. The paper is lead by the narrator and Telegraph editor, Jamie Crawford, and her best friends Nomi, Terry, Cindy and Jack. After Jamie writes an editorial supporting the distribution of condoms, the student body, faculty, parents and, most crucially, the School Committee begin to divide on the benefits of the new curriculum. Within days, it seems everyone has an opinion, zeroing in on the topics of safe sex, homosexuality and condom availability.

Enter into the fray Lisa Buel, a newly elected member of the School Committee, who proceeds to speak out more and more forcefully against the health policy on moral grounds. To add yet another layer of confusion, both Jamie and Terry are in the process of coming out -- they in fact became friends after being repeatedly teased in elementary and middle school for the same perceived offense. Each are even more confused as they are tested by new relationships, Jamie by the friendship (and possibly more?) offered by an alluring new student Tessa, and Terry by an unstable romance with one of their classmates, Ernie.

Again and again as I read, I was impressed by the intelligence and realistic attitudes given to every character. Jamie is a strong, intelligent and charming main character, and each of her friends emerge as the kind of face any reader can relate to. The spareness of description also allows for an interesting feel to the story, as every reader can identify people within their own circles which fit the characters' niches.

The issues tackled in the book are also well-balanced, and Garden avoids the cliche of having everything wrap up neatly in the end. Attempting to define and clarify such issues as free speech, hate speech and crimes, prejudice, and how almost inevitably morality tangles in with them is a difficult task. Mostly, Garden pulls off addressing each issue well while discussion is also appropriate within the confines of story and character. The finish of the story seemed a little too quick for my taste, with too many plots unresolved, but in many ways, the given resolution is true to life.

The book has definite slant against censorship, but Garden also has a talent for presenting the opposite opinions with the understanding that not everyone agrees, nor can you always expect them to. As she points out, it wouldn't be freedom of speech if both sides weren't allowed a voice, no matter how objectionable each might find their opponent's views. Although the characters do often become voiceboxes for representing whatever sides needs a voice, the division between the outspoken Jamie and conventional Nomi, best friends since childhood growing apart as they gain independant views, plays out honestly and with the inherent pain in that process.

On a more personal level, the two characters' coming out, each at different stages, is portrayed with great wit, respect and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. As well as dealing with the gay characters' emotional rides, the book also addresses how their friends experiences may go, and as someone who's been through the process as such a friend, I'm grateful to see both a true and optimistic sequence of events.

As I researched this review, uncovering just why Annie on my Mind had been banned and then onto the broader subject of banned books, I realized that my first impression was unfortunately mostly true -- there are precious few YA books which deal with homosexuality, and often those that do have a gay character who must be buffeted by torturous emotions and, in a bizarre but too common trend, often die. Even if they manage to survive, there's little hope. In The Year They Burned the Books, however, Jamie and Terry are not ashamed, merely uncertain and fearful of how their small, conservative community might react to them. Ernie, as Terry's tentative boyfriend, resembles those earlier melancholic characters, but he also grows stronger and provides the necessary glimpse of just how difficult it is to admit to himself he's gay, let alone come out, having grown up in a religious and traditional family who would never accept him. The scenes I carried away from the book with me was first the anguish Terry feels for Ernie as he waffles between admitting his love and burying it, terrified of the consequences, and second the strength and comradeship Terry, Ernie and Jamie all arrive at by the finish.

Outside of sexuality, I had the immediate feeling that the story of the book would appeal to anyone who's ever been made to feel small or wrong because they were in some way different. The joke still runs that almost everyone felt that way at some point in middle school, and this apparently universal truth of the cruelty of middle and high school would make anyone appreciate the story. Nomi also provides an understandable, human face to the conservative side of the discussion, and avoids the villainy that committee member Lisa Buel comes to represent.

This is the kind of book which will certainly provoke questions and discussion amoug the readers, be they adults or teenagers. Hopefully it will invite open and even-handed conversations rather than the bitter arguments which can arise around such touchy subjects. Perhaps with all of the Harry Potter hullabaloo, not to mention the even more recent controversy over the film Dogma -- proving adults are just as good at finger-pointing about film and art -- it's a good time to bring up censorship and prejudice in a story which rings so true. I think Tony Kushner and Michael Cunningham would be pleased to see this still young genre expanded by Garden.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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