Remember how we talked about stars and the way a book can deserve a star for reasons that in no way correlate to Printzliness?
Beneath a Meth Moon could be Exhibit A to illustrate the gap that can exist between stars and the gold. This is a three-star book. The reviews mostly focus on the emotional impact of the novel (interestingly, the words “poignant” and “dreamlike” each appear in two reviews). And there is an emotional punch. In fact, it’s unavoidable given the 1-2 of a past destroyed by Katrina and a present destroyed by meth. But three stars for that one, admittedly significant aspect of the book does not, in this case, correlate to shortlist status because the virtues are counterbalanced by shortcomings that matter in an assessment of literary quality even if they don’t matter when it comes to emotional depth.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this would be a no-star afterschool special, reliant on topical issues for emotional depth. But Jacqueline Woodson is no lightweight, and she has done a lot here with very few words. Laurel’s first person narrative slips between past and present, laced with the rhythms of the South. Sentences are sometimes poetic, and often brief; combined with the way Laurel sometimes flits from thought to thought, there’s almost a free verse effect. Laurel calls meth “moon,” an affectation that works; it’s the last vestige of lying to herself, a piece of the story she tells herself about meth and T-Boom and belonging and comfort. When it comes to Laurel’s voice, there are plenty of wins here.
This is a tiny book. The hardcover clocks in at under 200 pages, and the font sizing and white space are fairly significant; different packaging could easily have brought this at under 150 pages. And I know we all kvetch about the tendency towards doorstoppers and the supersizing of the YA field, but this is the kind of short that does the text and tale a disservice.
(Data nerds, does anyone want to run some numbers on length of books and the Printz? I was thinking about it and wondering if there’s a correlation or if there just aren’t that many short books around these days.)
The brevity of Beneath a Meth Moon leads to a lot of telling and not enough showing. It leads to limited characterization and a rushing of details. Laurel’s internal voice is powerful, but everything else seems to get short shrift, especially the other characters.
Example 1: Best friend Kaylee. From the beginning it’s made clear that Kaylee is one of the few people really standing by Laurel as she struggles to stay clean, before the story moves back to the past. Kaylee is presented as a true friend, one who takes abuse and pain and keeps on giving. But Kaylee and Laurel only knew each other for a few months before Laurel started doing meth, and as readers we only see two interactions between them before that point: the day they meet and a snapshot at the game/after game when Laurel and T-Boom first get together. These two snapshots don’t give us enough to buy Kaylee as a character at all — there’s hardly anything to believe or disbelieve; she likes books and cheerleads and she’s friendly. There is also one possibly inconsistent element of her barely sketched character; there are numerous indications that T-Boom’s drug use has been going on for a while, and it seems odd that Kaylee, who appears to be observant (she picks up on Laurel’s meth use pretty quickly) has no inkling that he’s anything other than awesome, which makes it seem like Kaylee is a bit of a device to create a situation where Laurel and T-Boom get together (she’s the one who told Laurel to go out for cheerleading, for no apparent reason whatsoever, and then encourages Laurel to pursue/respond to T-Boom). Ultimately it’s hard to see how Kaylee is one of Laurel’s rocks in the end, because we’ve never really seen her at all.
Example 2: T-Boom himself. The first time Laurel really notices him, she’s smitten. Within hours she’s accepted drugs from him without any question — this from a thoughtful, introspective girl who worries about giving her brother enough greens at every meal. Once Laurel has taken meth, it’s easy to understand why she would want more, both because it’s physically addictive and because it eases her grief, which is so present and real in the writing. But again there’s not enough time to develop anything about this relationship or about T-Boom and this precipitating event happens so fast as to seem like a deus ex machina, only at the start rather than the end.
Example 3: Moses. Moses is probably my favorite character in this book. He’s a gay black boy with serious artistic skills in a depressed, mostly white town (that’s the implication, I think) where lots of the younger people are doing meth. He spends his time painting pictures of the victims of addiction, working his way through his own grief and the loss of his own mother (to meth, of course). Moses telling his story to Laurel is one of two moments in the book that could probably elicit tears from a stone (the other is the flashback moment when Laurel and her father realize that Pass Christian is gone and Laurel’s mother and grandmother are gone, a moment written so perfectly, with the cop delivering the news and no belaboring of the point). But why Moses chooses Laurel, of all people, as the one he can save is never made clear, and why he sticks by her through her recovery and becomes her “brother-friend” is another detail sacrificed to the length which in turn sacrifices something from the book.
I realize that the lack of character development and flat secondary characters (Kaylee and T-Boom; Moses less so) may be unavoidable given the length and focus of this book. These are the result of presumably deliberate author decisions; this is Laurel’s story and it could be argued that in her head, everyone else is somewhat secondary and exists only in relation to her. But in the end, these decisions flatten the book and detract from it’s Printzworthiness; these people are the ones who cause Laurel’s downfall and eventually help her recover. They are critical to Laurel and to her story, so the decision/failure to flesh them out fully leaves the entire story feeling underdeveloped (dreamlike?).
This major flaw, in Printz terms, combined with two huge issues packed into so few pages, result in a slim, emotionally affecting book that doesn’t quite go the distance despite the wonderful writing. Oh, for fifty more pages!