Twenty-First Century Adolescence and Other Dangerous Things

Reviewed by Anne Kaufman

Life as a post-9/11 adolescent means that your senses are continually under assault: easy access to social media opens up both ethical and emotional minefields, technology is everywhere, and real privacy is a thing of the past. Everyone, it seems, is battling anxiety, depression, or both. For high school junior Sydney, the protagonist of Leanne Lieberman’s The Most Dangerous Thing, the effect of this onslaught is to render her pathologically afraid, both of being touched and of desiring to be touched. Depression physically weighs her down and makes a Herculean task of getting out of bed each morning. Her closest relationships are long-term connections with people who know her well and offer no surprises, until one of these long-time acquaintances rocks the boat by suddenly changing from being just a friend to a potential love interest. Older sister Abby, relentlessly described as the extroverted sister, further upsets Sydney’s equilibrium with her plan to stage The Vagina Monologues at their high school; this secondary storyline leads to the frankly unbelievable conclusion of the novel. The rituals of a contemporary Jewish family, filtered through Sydney’s twin desires to belong and to pull away, reassure the reader that Sydney always has a safety net. Pitched at a younger age group (early middle school) than the other two novels in this review, The Most Dangerous Thing brings Sydney through authentic crisis to a resolution that feels only slightly contrived.

In Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined, Danielle Younge-Ullman responds to the unending noise of twenty-first-century life by sending her protagonist Ingrid off to an immersive nature camp, armed with what we find out later is one of one hundred empty journals. Ingrid is a familiar female adolescent voice at the start of the novel, missing her First-World luxuries and resenting her mother’s insistence that she participate. As is common with journey narratives, the trip is a growth experience for Ingrid, and Younge-Ullman is able to permit her moments of insight without losing the sense of her voice. The semi-epistolary style, with Ingrid addressing her mother in each journal entry, makes perfect sense once Ingrid reveals some details of her history in narrative moments separate from the letters. Ingrid is most effective as a narrator when she addresses her mother, but the backstory could not have worked in that format. The book does contain potential triggers for survivors of sexual assault.

The lack of privacy experienced by sixteen-year-old Munro Maddux in Darren Groth’s Munro vs. the Coyote is due to the incessant voice in his head, whom he calls Coyote, and who has been present since the death of Munro’s younger sister some nine months previously. He is hoping against hope that leaving British Columbia for a six-month exchange program in Australia will allow him to vanquish Coyote and have his thoughts to himself. Evie Maddux’s sudden death from a heart condition has left emptiness at the centre of the Maddux family and left Munro himself weighed down by guilt and grief. Munro’s parents deal with their grief by establishing a foundation for Down syndrome research in Evie’s name, but this only makes Munro feel less able to communicate with them. Details about Evie’s death come through Munro’s reminiscences and conversations with Coyote; while savvy readers will figure these out well before the narrative gets there, this predictability does not substantially affect the reading experience.

Upon arriving in Brisbane, Munro learns that he is required to complete fifty hours of community service. Again, somewhat predictably, he is placed at Fair Go, an assisted living community for young people. He expects to be reminded of his sister non-stop, and resists the placement. The group who accepts Munro as their Living Partner, however, becomes an integral part of Munro’s life. When he is with them, he doesn’t hear Coyote’s voice. While he does have a small group of friends at school, the Fair Go community becomes a lifeline for Munro, and he begins to spend more and more time there, well beyond his required fifty hours. Realistic characters with mental illness, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, and PTSD are rare enough in YA fiction; Groth has created an authentic cohort who play an active role in Munro’s Australian journey toward healing. Despite a hole in the plot you could drive a semi through, Munro’s journey is compelling and his voice believable.

In a YA universe dominated by authors with great publicists, it is a pleasure to find three writers with such deep concern for language and story. Each evokes a sense of place: Lieberman describes Sydney’s bicycling and outings with her grandfather, Younge-Ullman makes us feel Ingrid’s every blister during her protagonist’s trek through the wilderness, and Groth chronicles Munro’s transition from British Columbia to a different season and unfamiliar landscape in Brisbane. Each has written a central character whose voice will resonate with YA fans, and each has found a way to position their narrative alongside twenty-first-century concerns without being aggressively trendy.

This review “Twenty-First Century Adolescence and Other Dangerous Things” originally appeared in Concepts of Vancouver: Poetics, Art, Media Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 235 (Winter 2017): 150-152.

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