Welcome to the Dust Bowl as you’ve never seen it before, peopled by lots more than, well, people, in a new series that covers some of the same territory as American Gods or The Flight of Michael McBride (sadly out of print, but a crossover treasure if you can find it). I don’t think anyone has done this sort of story in YA before, where the nearest readalike would probably be the not-actually-anything-like-this Far West trilogy by Patricia Wrede. Or possibly O Brother Where Art Thou, with its vague magic realism, and which I found myself thinking of as I read Dust Girl; it’s neither a book nor YA, but does seem to be familiar to lots of teen readers.
So we’re definitely talking original. Original in concept, original in execution, and (although it’s a funny word to use given the Dust Bowl setting) altogether fresh.
It’s also first in a trilogy, and if we know anything about series books, it’s that first books that make no bones about being first (as opposed to books that turn out to be first but weren’t apparently conceived, pitched, and/or branded as such) don’t tend to fare terribly well. Also, it’s (obviously) fantasy, which, statistically speaking, is another award black mark, although not a death knell.
But it’s pretty damn awesome. Does it stand a chance?
Let’s start with voice. Although actually there’s not a lot to say here, because Callie’s voice is seamless. There was no moment when I was taken out of the story by her voice; she narrates with dialect and attitude that are expressly hers and feel absolutely true to the character. I don’t know enough about how people in Oklahoma sounded to be sure that the dialect, which is not too heavy, is accurate, but it sounds accurate to my sense of the time and place.
The research is thorough and rarely shows. The opening chapter gives a time and place that is historically accurate (April 14, 1935 was apparently the Dust Bowl equivalent of Frankenstorm, with 20 storms across the region that day and visibility almost completely obscured — thanks as ever to Wikipedia for fact checking). Casual references to cultural markers of the time are all, as far as I can find, correct (I wondered about the angel and devil on the shoulders reference, but that checked out, as did everything else I tried verifying). History is not my area, especially American History, so if anyone saw flaws I missed, let me know, but certainly everything I could check, checked out, and the overall sense of place — the endless dirt, the dryness, the deadness of the land and the people starving and moving on and through — made it all come alive. For the most part, the history is so smoothly slipped into the narrative that a reader can miss how much history is actually present (especially since this is also a fantasy).
The one major exception — which sticks out like a cartoon style sore thumb, impossible to miss — is the massive infodump delivered at about the one-third point by Jack. For two and a half pages, he talks about fairies. He knows they don’t like iron. He knows about the Seelie and Unseelie courts. He immediately grasps the significance of Baya, the first nonhuman Callie met, who is Coyote, and figures out that Callie herself is half fairy. This is all critical information, and it needs to be out there so that the story can move on; Jack’s revelations are in fact the lynchpin that move the story from episodic bizarre encounters to a journey (albeit still a somewhat episodic journey, and while that worked for me, I could see an argument for the structure being the novel’s greatest shortcoming; I also think a better scholar of American Lit could also make a pretty cogent counterargument that the structure plays with tropes of the great American novel). But (back to my point) ultimately Jack is providing a straight-up infodump and it’s clumsy. Is it a fatal flaw? No, but in an otherwise slick and smooth piece of writing, it’s a real shame.
Fortunately, Jack turns out to be more than a device for getting some information to the readers, and like Callie turns out to be complex and written on multiple levels. Overall, the characters are pretty stellar (and not just because some of them have literal stars in their eyes). Each character is also used to examine contradiction, choice, and freedom, operating as both people and nuanced examinations of the themes that underlie (lay?) the novel.
In the center, there’s Callie, torn between worlds and beings (white and black, human and fairy, weakness and power, girl and woman), and Jack, who, while presumably fully human, also occupies liminal spaces. He’s a Jew passing as a gentile in 1935. He’s a boy who knows money but has never had it. He’s a career criminal raised in a lawless world with a strong sense of direction both actual and moral.But Callie and Jack are also kids caught up in events beyond their understanding, just trying to make it. Symbol and reality, people, and I am in AWE of Zettel’s skill.
The two major mother figures embody the same dualism, and also symbolize two different kinds of support and safety, as well as two different ways that love can be cruel. Callie’s Mama has imprisoned the two of them in an old hotel for years, waiting for her inhuman and not white lover to return, regardless of what would be best for Callie. Shimmy’s approach is the opposite, but with the same disregard for what Callie wants or needs: she believes that the best thing for Callie is for Callie to be reunited with her father’s family in a world where color doesn’t matter, even though events prove her wrong.
I’ve already touched on the thematic scope and the depth here. Duality and the nature of humanity provide the subtextual core; these questions play out in a conversation about race (it’s hard to avoid the desire to compare this with The Chaos, and it’s fascinating to me that this makes the third genre title this year in which the protagonist is a person of color. Perhaps the dominance of white characters in genre is finally crumbling). But race here is twofold, both black and white and human and fairy. All four sides have terrible people and wonderful people, and nothing is black or white, which is a bit punny but I think is also fully intentional.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Right now, in a year filled with frankly brilliant fantasy novels (most of which we haven’t covered yet, but September and October have been particularly rich), this still stands out. It’s original, skillful, interesting, and just a darn good read.
It also has no resolution, and while I don’t mind open endings, this is not that. Instead, it’s part one of a larger series, and if the questions and groundwork laid here pan out, we’re talking Turner Award material for sure. But currently, I worry that this is just unfinished, and as such, I don’t know if it stands a chance, despite the brilliance. Still, I’d nominate it in a heartbeat (and then I’d spend hours grappling with the difference between unresolved and unfinished).
(A final aside: this is the third book this quarter from an established and well known genre author; this is the second of the three that is the author’s YA debut [the other YA debut is of course The Chaos; Radiant Days is Hand’s second YA]. This one is most likely to hit the sweet spot when it comes to YA readers, although the terrible series title is, well, terrible. Also, the white-washed cover art is a huge shame.)
So am I blinded by the fact that this a story that could have been designed for me, or is it really something special? And even if I am a bit blinded, how on earth did this only get, oh, zero stars? Hit me, although preferably without the cast iron frying pans Callie employs so well.