This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
In an age of ubiquitous self-revelation, I consider myself discreet: I don’t gossip, don’t share intimate information — mine or others’ — in public places. The idea of discussing my physical or mental health, or personal, professional, or financial struggles, with anyone other than close friends or family feels wrong. I know many do so gladly in the name of openness, destigmatization, and shining a light on our underlying commonalities. That’s fine.
Me, I don’t even want to fill in my relationship status on Facebook.
But this doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other people’s.
A quick and unscientific survey of my Friends, for instance, reveals that most married people identify as married. Beyond that it falls off steeply: a few show up as single or in a relationship, one or two as divorced (many more actually are), one friend as widowed. And, for whatever reasons, no one in my Friend universe has checked off “It’s complicated.”
And what does that mean, anyway? I imagine various possibilities involving too many words for a pull-down menu — a nonexclusive relationship, or maybe an unrequited one, or a breakup that has lasted way past its expiration date.
But really, if we’re talking about relationships, doesn’t “It’s Complicated” apply to everyone? Of course it’s complicated — relationships with lovers, spouses, friends, enemies, parents, children, siblings, coworkers, neighbors. The complexity of human bonds is endlessly fascinating; this is why we tell stories, and why we read them.
Telling them well, though — doing justice to the endless entanglements we navigate every day — calls for emotional intelligence and a steady hand. Debuting with her first book of stories You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande) at age 45, Amy Gustine answers that call and demonstrates a deep respect for those complications.
Each story in You Should Pity Us Instead approaches then strips away the cliché at the center of a relationship — the insufficiently parented child, the unfaithful husband, the obsessively fearful new mother, the black son of a white adoptive family — replacing it with something finely tuned and delicate. And yet there is nothing ephemeral about Gustine’s characters. Each exists in careful balance to their partners, antagonists, and kin, but at the same time their integrity shines, unshakeable.
“In order to even begin writing I’ve got to have some sense of there being an irresolvable complexity, even contradiction, in the story,” says Gustine. “It’s unpacking the contradiction and nuance through the events and the dialogue that makes writing intriguing. Consistency and singularity are boring.”
Thus you have Sarah in “Half-Life,” a 22-year-old nanny only recently aged out of the foster care system who is trying to work out what she needs to know as an adult through the children she cares for. Or Spencer, from the story “Goldene Medene,” an Ellis Island intake doctor whose recent heartbreak clouds his judgment about the immigrants whose lives he holds in his hands.
Or Shayla and Mike in “Prisoners Do,” two doctors engaged in an extramarital affair for whom nothing is simple: Mike is the caretaker for his disabled wife and three young daughters; Shayla’s mother has metastatic brain cancer. Locked in their respective orbits, the titular prisoners circle ever closer but their paths never align. Gustine takes their measure as they cycle through the messiness of desire, envy, disaffection.
His daughter had sounded very sweet, and that simple exchange they had—’Is your Dad home?’ ‘Sure, may I tell him who’s calling?’ — had brought her heart into her throat and Shayla didn’t know why. She really, truly had been fine with no kids. Was still, when she thought about it, fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was something else.
These are grownup stories. The author’s powers of perception and empathy have been honed over a lifetime. Gustine’s parents divorced when she was young, and both sets of grandparents stepped in to help raise her — growing up she felt, she said, that she had six parents and four households, each with its own rules and mores.
Without being aware of it, my sister and I learned how to fit in with each one. Jokes you might make to my dad wouldn’t be okay with my grandparents. Shows that Grandma might watch with us, like a soap opera, wouldn’t be approved of by Dad. Sometimes I think juggling four different microcultures, as well as the culture of our private Catholic school, which was yet again very different from our home cultures, is what created a certain fascination with families, with relationships, and a certain empathetic imagination.
Always a reader, Gustine found books to be a perfect portable comfort. “When you move from house to house all week every week, and you don’t have your own bedroom,” she explains, “a book is a marvelous little thing that you can carry easily. You can just about live in it.” She read everything from Little Women to the Trixie Belden series to James Michener and V.C. Andrews (the latter two were lying around her grandparents’ houses) and, in high school, the Russians — Leo Tolstoy, and even more so Fyodor Dostoevsky — and Milan Kundera.
Gustine always considered herself a writer, she says, typing at an old metal desk in her grandmother’s basement. She wrote on weekends while working full-time after attending the University of Michigan, then earned an MFA at Bowling Green State University when her daughter was a toddler. When her son was born four years later, she stayed home with him for the first year and then started him in daycare and began writing full-time.
“Even though I knew I shouldn’t, sometimes I felt self-indulgent sending them off while I wrote,” she admits. “If I’d been getting a regular paycheck for the work, I doubt I would have felt that way. I did my best to ignore those feelings and push ahead.”
There were dry spells and productive periods,” Gustine adds. You Should Pity Us Instead gathers stories written over 15 years, most published one at a time in literary journals beginning with “An Uncontaminated Soul” when she was 35.
Two stories, “The River Warta” and “Goldene Medene” (a title that needs to be spoken out loud with the proper Yiddish inflection, GOLdeneh MEDeneh), were pulled from a collection of linked fiction based on her family’s immigrant experience at the turn of the century, which she began at Bowling Green; the rest emerged gradually. “I chose those to include based on two criteria: how much I liked them and whether or not they seemed to fit a family or parent-child relationship theme.” And as every one of us knows, family relationships are invariably complicated.
Take even a straightforward setup like a mother and an absent, beloved son. “All the Sons of Cain” opens the collection with palpable tension, a crowd of anonymous protestors milling outside a grieving woman’s bedroom:
After they find out where she lives, they start coming every week, sometimes every day. Wednesday morning they come especially early, waking her. R’s mother stays in bed, yearning for coffee and the bathroom, but fearful of nearing the window.
Her son, a young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, has been turned into the conflict’s literal poster child, his photograph hoisted on their placards: “Sometimes they use him to protest another prisoner trade, sometimes to support it; sometimes to urge settlements, other times to condemn those already built.” His mother believes him dead. But when he turns up on the television news in a video, claiming to have converted to Islam and holding a recently dated newspaper, she grabs a change of clothes and a handful of old photographs and departs for Gaza to find him. Here, as throughout the book, Gustine shows her flair for painting a simultaneously interior and exterior portrait — micro and macro — with the same strokes:
As her plane descends into Cairo’s International Airport, R’s mother looks down on the glittering high-rises lining the Nile’s shore, then inland, to the raw-concrete worker’s homes, squatting in twilight. To the east is the City of the Dead, crumbling, necropolitan mustards, and to the west the dark, ancient deserts of Giza’s tombs, so singular and grand they strike her not as burial plots, but as alien settlements. Everywhere there are minarets, looking from above like missiles.
R’s mother doesn’t succeed on her mission. Instead, she finds other sons, and other mothers; a 13-year-old boy from the street who alternately taunts her and aids her, a young girl whose difficult birth she helps with in the back of a dark house. Still, this is not a heartwarming story of shared humanity. There is no great equalizing blanket of motherhood, or longing, or need. This is in fact a recurring pattern in the complications of Gustine’s characters’ lives: what could serve as a common thread and, in a simpler version of the world, bring them together, more often drives them apart.
Gustine’s characters’ relationship to faith — as a common language, a redemptive power — is, like all other relationships in Gustine’s stories, complicated. In the book’s title story, Molly, the wife of an academic who has written a Christopher Hitchens–like polemic against religion, moves with her family from Berkeley to her Ohio hometown, where her husband, Simon, has taken a position as chair of a philosophy department. Soon she realizes that their publicly atheist beliefs are in a stark minority. Once Simon’s book has been featured in a newspaper article, they also find that “invites to card nights and progressive dinners have dried up and the girls have been skipped over for several birthday parties and sleepovers.”
Molly’s relationship to her own faith, or lack of it, is complicated both by her desire for community — for herself, for her daughters — and the fact that her beloved grandfather, whom she visits daily, is growing frail. “Everybody’s going to die,” her husband tells the girls, but this isn’t enough of an answer for any of them. The question of where faith fits into this puzzle hangs over them all; even its absence is couched in the language of belief:
One day she looks up from her book and sees that the elm’s ten thousand pods, which blanketed the gardens in late May, have sprouted. Somehow this mindless, unwanted propagation makes being lonely okay. Even in the form of a plant, the world has violence and invasion at its core. Being lonely is the least you can expect. It’s so light a disappointment, it almost counts as a blessing.
Perhaps because of her Catholic upbringing, the spiritual questions Gustine’s characters ask wear a well-worn luster. “When We’re Innocent,” for instance, while not explicitly religious, is a story of the complications that come with (or without) belief: culpability, guilt, and the ways we grant each other mercy. Obi, who has come to Phoenix to clean out his daughter Jolly’s apartment, doesn’t know if her death by overdose was accidental or a suicide. Brian, who lives next door and is awaiting a trial on rape charges, is unsure of whether — or perhaps unwilling to admit that — the sex with a woman he met online was non-consensual. The two sit in Brian’s apartment, crushed by their unanswered questions, able to offer each other sympathy but not salvation.
‘What am I going to tell her mother?’ [Obi] bleated, bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose until his knuckles went white. ‘She had to have a reason.’
‘Tell her it was my fault,’ Brian said. ‘Tell her Jolly lived next door to a depraved soul unworthy of her, and if he’d only been a better man, Jolly would still be here.’
The state of loneliness — when relationships have gone awry or missing — is layered with complications as well. Lavinia, in “An Uncontaminated Soul,” is, bluntly, a cat lady. Widowed, living in her late mother’s house next door to her nemesis, the hostile and meddlesome old man Pultwock, she shares her cat food-slippery, piss-smelling home with 56 cats; her granddaughter is no longer allowed to visit.
But love is love, and Lavinia — actually Mary, a lover of literature who renamed herself after “Emily Dickinson’s sister who liked cats” — is alternately convivial and achingly tender with her feline charges. After rescuing two newborn kittens from a hot car,
she pinches their flesh and rubs her finger along their gums. Each is a bit sticky, so she sets up the humidifier in her bedroom, shooing out all the other cats, and installs the kittens in a box lined with sheepskin car-seat covers from the towed Olds.
In the kitchen Lavinia warms milk, corn oil, salt, and egg yolks on the stove, then feeds each kitten with a doll’s bottle. Afterward, she massages their genitals with a warm, moist cotton ball and they relieve themselves in her palm. She prefers to do it that way at first, so she can be sure who did what and how much.
Her story doesn’t end well. But in the process of pulling at our hearts, Gustine also asks something of us: that we not only rethink the dismissive trope of “cat lady,” but also that of the angry old man who eventually calls the Humane Society on her. In his catless loneliness, Pultwock — whose mien is as abrasive as his name, but whose own heartache the reader catches just a glimpse of — may be even more desperate for love than she.
“You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious,” says Molly to her fellow Midwestern mothers in an attempt at lightheartedness. The truth being, of course, that we are, all of us, lonely and anxious in our unending search for connection amidst messy, imperfect lives.
“It might go back to the issue of contradiction,” Gustine admits. “I don’t believe in purity. There’s good in bad and bad in good. There are no easy, straightforward situations or solutions.”
Its title to the contrary, You Should Pity Us Instead is a book distinctly devoid of pity. Gustine treats her characters — and thus her readers — with dignity and compassion. Our complications, she demonstrates with each story, may drive us and often damage us, but they’re important.
“All meaning seems to derive from connection to others and all connection requires caretaking, inevitably leading to a conflict between duty and pleasure,” she says. “So to live a meaningful life we must at some point sacrifice pleasure. That’s a paradox: to feel pleased we must not be pleased all the time.”
True, it’s complicated. But, Gustine wants us to see, it couldn’t — and shouldn’t — be any other way.
Catching Fire, the follow-up to Hunger Games, opens this Friday, and the future of teen fantasy film may depend on its success. When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tanked at the box office in August, critics rejoiced over the apparent death of the genre. A few months earlier in March, The Host had also flopped, winning the distinction of being the last film Roger Ebert ever panned. BuzzFeed writer Jordan Zakarin concluded that the “tween vampire jugular is tapped.” In the Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo suggested that teenage girls nursed on Twilight had finally seen through the hackneyed “Chosen One” story trope, a plot-line that has held its own since the Book of Esther. Writing more pragmatically in Forbes, Scott Mendelson blamed City of Bones’s floundering on bad marketing.
Despite this failure, the actual book by Cassandra Clare was a roaring success, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. Though the teen fantasy craze may be on the downslope, it is not quite dead; rather, the supernatural romances of Twilight and its ilk have yielded to the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. The first film adaptation grossed $691 million last year, and with a fresh crop of middle-schoolers looking for signposts to their own significance, the second installment’s curtain raise is likely to be well-attended.
Though publishers distinguish between supernatural, paranormal romance, and dystopia, these genres all involve an element of fantasy. HarperCollins editor Kari Sutherland told me that since 2010 the company has tripled its number of such titles, which include the wildly successful Divergent and Delirium series. Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, said these books have played an “intrinsic” role in the increase of titles it’s sold in the past five years. Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice. But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?
Before the American Civil War, the idea of writing books for teenagers didn’t cross the minds of American publishers. It was only in the 1860s that popular novels for girls like the Elsie Dinsmore series appeared, featuring saintly, passive heroines whose lives revolved around the home. But a demand also grew for blood-and-thunder romances that expressed an underlying feminine ennui as much as they negatively implicated the women reading them. The heroines of these tales were usually embroiled in a lurid affair between suitors or some other form of love-gone-awry that threatened their virginity.
These women — the evolutionary ancestors of today’s high-grossing teen heroines — were seen to confirm upper class assumptions about the promiscuity of the lower class. Louisa May Alcott’s first story, a psycho-thriller novella called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, followed a jilted woman’s quest for revenge against a lover who leaves her for a wealthy woman. In 1862, after it was published under the pen name of A. M. Barnard, Alcott wrote to her friend Alf Whitman: “I get ten dollars a page for my foolish little story…money is the end & aim of my mercenary existence I scribble away.” Even after she became a famous writer, Alcott continued churning out pulp fiction for the tabloids. “Perilous Play” of 1869 ends memorably with its heroine exclaiming, “Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!”
But squeaky-clean domestic romances remained the more socially acceptable reading choice until the turn of the century, when publishers like The Henry Altemus Company concluded that “girls as well as boys love adventure.” The Stratemeyer Syndicate published 85 new girls’ series between 1910 and 1920 starring young women who played basketball, drove cars, helped the poor, solved mysteries, and even made movies. Most of all, they went to college. The historian Jane S. Smith has noted that less than four percent of college-aged American girls attended university in 1910, “but it was a rare heroine of fiction who did not take a room on the campus green, where she studied biology and Latin, drank cocoa with her kimono-clad chums and upheld the school traditions with moist-eyed fervor.”
These books captured the spirit of the Suffragettes, who in 1913 marched on the Washington Mall to demand women’s equality. The popular Ruth Fielding Series (1913-1934) was about an orphan living with a mean uncle who disapproves of her desire for a future outside the home. Smart and ambitious, Ruth works hard in school, goes to college, wins a film-writing contest and even starts her own production company. In book #15, Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound (1919), the narrator explains, “Marriage was something very far ahead in the future, if Ruth … thought of it at all.” When Ruth’s boyfriend Tom proposes in book #19, Ruth Fielding on the St. Lawrence (1922), she feels that “to do as Tom wished would utterly spoil the career on which she had now entered so successfully. Tom, like most young men in love, considered that a girl’s only career should be a husband and a home…she wanted to live her own life.”
It’s ironic, as Smith has noted, that bettering one’s self through college or career fell out of focus in teen fiction not long after women got the vote. By the 1980s, suburban dramas in the vein of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitter’s Club predominantly reigned.
One night in 2003, Stephenie Meyer had a dream about vampires and woke up the next morning to begin writing the first Twilight book, a nearly 500-page tome. Within five years the first Twilight film appeared, launching a franchise, and by extension, a phenomenon. Though girls devoured the series in cinematic and print form (I once saw a first edition at Half-Price Books valued at $600), critics spared no kindness on its 17-year-old heroine, “Bella” Swan:
“Neither [Edward or Bella] has much personality to speak of.”
“[Bella] is not only hard to identify with but positively horrifying…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her…young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.”
— National Review
“…the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”
— Washington Post
And a final, damning rebuke:
“You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
— The Guardian
Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care. After the first Twilight film, Bella (Kristin Stewart) became a de facto role model for young women — the instantaneous object of their envy, praise, and imitation. The internet was rife with articles and YouTube videos instructing girls how to dress like Bella, apply their makeup like Bella, and, most frighteningly, act like Bella. In one video, a girl earnestly advised viewers to be “clumsy and accident-prone.” Clothing brand BB Dakota even replicated for mass production the jacket Bella wore in the film. Bella singlehandedly set the stage for an army of similar teen heroines that came after her — ones who share more in common with Alcott’s Pauline or even Elsie Dinsmore than Ruth Fielding. In fact, the sting of Twilight intensifies when one compares the book to Girl of the Limberlost (1908), a young adult novel authored by Gene Stratton-Porter and published a full hundred years before Twilight premiered in theaters.
Both Elnora Comstock, author Gene Stratton-Porter’s 16-year-old heroine, and Bella Swan are Cinderella archetypes. Twilight opens when Bella moves to the leafy town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad, since her mom is preoccupied doting on a boyfriend. Elnora’s father is dead, and she lives in rural Indiana with her mother, a grief-stricken tyrant. Each, in their own ways, are loners. Though friends flock around Bella at school, she tells the reader, “I didn’t relate well to people my age… Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” While Bella may feel like an outsider, Elnora is one. Snubbed for her old-fashioned clothes, she becomes a pariah on her first day of high school and eats her lunch alone. Both girls also spend their time wandering the woods near their homes. Bella’s activities in the lush Northwest forest involve chasing around her love interest, a vampire named Edward Cullen (or more often, joyriding on his back). Elnora works quietly in the swampy Limberlost, where her own father drowned, collecting rare moths to sell so she can buy schoolbooks and save money for college.
But at the heart of Twilight lies something else almost more sinister than its treatment of romance. The more Bella submits to Edward’s charms, the closer she gets to the end of her human life and the beginning of her undead one. Coupled with her disinterest in the outside world, her desire for Edward becomes a death wish — fulfilled when she is finally bitten by him and becomes herself a vampire. If this sounds twisted, remember that it’s the ending that most Twilight readers hoped for. This hunger for death is countered in Limberlost not only by Elnora’s resilience against life’s blows but also by the forest’s own struggle to survive industrialization. Like Edward’s deadly effect on Bella, Elnora’s foraging in the Limberlost threatens it. A family friend warns her, “Each year you will find less in the swamp, and things everywhere will be scarcer.” By the time she graduates high school, the forest is not what it used to be. Still, Mrs. Comstock, who owns a large swath of the land, refuses to sell it to developers. Life pushes back against destruction for the conservation of a fragile but crucial habitat.
To a modern reader, Limberlost is sentimental, almost saccharine, and though it encourages independence it ultimately bows to the conventions of its era when, towards the end, Elnora reveals her perception of being a wife: “I understood that to mean that he desired me to keep him a clean house, serve him digestible food, mother his children, and give him loving, sympathy, and tenderness,” she says. But in a time when few women went to college, Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?
The author Lauren Oliver credited her inspiration for the dystopian teen romance Delirium to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote that all great books were about love and death. Throughout literary history, these twin subjects have been the core of many great novels (Anna Karenina) as well as many bad ones. As Twilight demonstrated, teen fantasy authors have taken up these themes with a special fervor, but no one has handled them as ruthlessly as Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games Trilogy.
Writing in Salon, critic Laura Miller has praised Katniss Everdeen, Collins’s strong-willed 16-year-old heroine, as an improvement on Bella:
Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob… Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister.
Indeed, Katniss has far more in common with Elnora. She also spends her days in a forest, hunting not moths but meat to sell on the black market. The resemblance between the two is uncanny. Like Elnora’s father, Katniss’s father is dead and her mother also emotionally invalid; just as Elnora inherits her father’s grace with the violin, Katniss has her father’s rich talent for song. Both characters struggle to survive in a dangerous environment. Thieves have overrun Elnora’s forest and warn her to keep out; her father’s bones, we are told, rest in the swampy pool bottom where he drowned. Yet somehow the Limberlost’s dangers don’t overwhelm her. Katniss’s post-apocalyptic home of Panem terrorizes her. Food is scarce; mutant birds and insects threaten; and hunting is a crime penalized by death As punishment for a past rebellion, each of the nation’s 12 districts sacrifices two “tributes” to compete in an annual reality show where the winner is the last one alive.
Here, dystopia reaches into every corner of life — even love. Along with a boy named Peeta, Katniss represents her district in the 74th annual games. Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people. In chapter 10, Peeta — who faces the same pressures as Katniss — tells her that his goal is to stay true to himself, even until death: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games… Don’t you see?” Katniss replies, “A little… but who cares, Peeta?”
Dystopian novels are provocative avenues through which readers can explore and even question their civic relationship to government, but Collins’s series fosters an especially grotesque worldview. The words “dead,” “dying,” and “death” appear more than 300 times in the series. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are again chosen to compete in a special edition of the bloodbath. When Katniss is wounded, the authorities nurse her to life because a quiet, private passing would be a loss for them. Later, Katniss resolves to kill Peeta “before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death.” As Mockingjay opens, she stumbles through the bombed-out landscape of District 12, tripping on human skulls and breathing in the ashes of the dead. When the couple finally defeat the Capitol, their victory feels pyrrhic at best. With most of their families dead (and Katniss’s initial sacrificing of herself for her sister rendered pointless), they marry, and nightmares haunt them always. Readers are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves. They may wonder: if the world really is that hopeless, what’s the point of striving for anything at all?
In comparison to Collins’s dark tale, Daniel Woodrell’s noiresque Winter’s Bone — whose 2010 film version also starred Jennifer Lawrence — seems strangely light. The fact that the novel, published in 2006, was not marketed to teenage girls is almost — but not quite — surprising. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, shares many similarities to Bella, Katniss, and Elnora. Living in the Ozark woods and hunting squirrels to feed her family, she also searches for her father, a meth cook who has gone missing. If he doesn’t turn up for his court date, her mother and siblings will be forced out of their home. There is no romance here; Ree mostly dreams of leaving the Ozarks and joining the Army. But in the end, she preserves her family home by confronting her father’s death in its most horrifying physical form. When the film version came out in 2010, David Edelstein noted in New York Magazine, “For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer…” New Yorker critic David Denby called Winter’s Bone “one of the greatest feminist works in film.”
Literature may not be about easy answers, but some of the best books bring some level of clarity to the reader within their nuanced explorations of the world — even if that clarity means that they find the answers are grayer than they thought. The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.
The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow. Though many teen readers lead average, suburban lives, they live in an information age rife with anxiety. Their social worlds, artificially reorganized online through social media, are open to endless bullying. Threats of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and domestic terrorism loop continuously on the nightly news. AMC — who owned the venue in which the Aurora shooting occurred and in whose franchises many fans will line up to see Catching Fire’s premiere — now runs a cautionary commercial about how to act in the case of such a catastrophe. In the midst of these uncertainties, let alone the hormonal depression from which many already suffer, the fashion and beauty industries fuel the pressure to look and act perfect.
In her article, Dalfonzo wrote, “It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.” But kids don’t just want to watch kids being kids. They want to step into the shoes of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.
Yet, in the famous words of Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.