The larger publishing industry is crumbling, but “young adult” fiction appears to be holding steady, even growing. As someone who as a child read novels with “adult” content years before I was supposed to, and who as an adult can frequently be found browsing the young adult section of my public library, I turn to the genre, time and time again, for the immediacy one finds in YA fiction. Books marketed to teenagers are rarely told through the altering prism of experience and nostalgia, which makes sense considering how young people go through life—with a limited sense of proportion and perspective. At that age, everything seems intense and life-altering.
Precisely this sort of raw exigency, artfully done, drew me into Jessica Lee Anderson’s second novel, Border Crossing. (Her first, Trudy, won the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature). From the opening paragraph, it becomes clear this tale will be a dark one when 15-year-old Manz wakes to a flashing red taillight that at first looks like fire and thinks, “It wasn’t the thought of flames that scared me. It was the thought that I might stay in bed and do nothing about it.”
Manz is a biracial teenager growing up in rural Texas, where immigrants regularly seek day labor on neighboring farms. Life has not been easy for Manz. His father was killed years earlier in a car accident; his half-brother was stillborn; his mother is a raging alcoholic; his best friend Jed gets the shit kicked out of him by his father regularly; and Manz has begun hearing voices.
Like most of the best fiction, YA or otherwise, Border Crossing is really about Manz’s search for a sense of self, his chafing against cruelty encountered at almost every turn. When he hears his mother’s boss at the convenience store run a young Hispanic boy off the property, he thinks: “Everyone knew how Jay felt about the Mexicans in town. Who knew how he felt about me? I was both Mexican and white. I lived in the middle, on Allen Street, near the border of the Great Divide.”
There is a wonderful scene in which Manz and Jed, unbeknownst to their parents, loiter on the street corner with the day laborers trying to get work and are almost run off by the regulars for being too privileged, too white. Manz struggles between identifying with his best friend, who angrily threatens to call Border Patrol, and with the immigrants, who remind him of his father.
Manz and Jed are hired to build a fence on a nearby guest ranch. There, Manz meets a pretty girl, “Egyptian Eyes,” who serves him sweet tea and whose family eventually tells him about “Operation Wetback,” which relocated illegal aliens after World War II and which Manz becomes convinced still secretly exists.
The way Anderson withholds information often builds a nice suspense—like how we don’t find out until page 36 the origin of Manz’s name—while at other times it is confusing. Throughout the novel, Manz silently blames his mother’s drinking for his half-brother’s being born without a brain.Eventually, we learn the baby suffered from anencephaly, a defect not caused by alcohol consumption and “nobody’s fault.” Is this “reveal” supposed to let the mother off the hook for drinking large amounts of liquor throughout her pregnancy?
The technique leads to a larger issue. Part of the literature’s beauty is that it makes us feel less alone with our problems, but the sheer number Manz faces in this novel is overwhelming: alcoholism, multiple deaths, abuse, racism. Oh, and I haven’t even come to his biggest problem—the voices in his head and escalating paranoia are early symptoms of schizophrenia. On top of everything else, Manz is quickly going crazy.
The author does an impressive job portraying this frightening mental illness. Even as Manz’s paranoia becomes obvious, we never stop empathizing with his point of view. His schizophrenia serves as a deus ex machina that trumps the other family and social tensions in the book up to that point. It’s almost as if this novel were trying to be two books, the ending of the second erasing the possibility for any resolution of the first.
Nevertheless, Anderson’s minimalist prose is always engaging, hitting the right emotional pauses and accents. She has a good ear for adolescent dialogue and doesn’t make her characters inane or silly. The short chapters and fast-paced scenes keep the pages turning, but it is her descriptions that make this fictional world almost crystalline in its bleak beauty: “Around the building, we saw a massacre of mesquite trees piled high and wide.”
Like Border Crossing, native Texan Diana Lopez’s first young adult novel, Confetti Girl, is set in a largely Hispanic part of the state. The first-person narrator, Lina Flores, also recently has lost a parent. This is where the similarities end. Confetti Girl is as light and airy and, well, confetti-like as Border Crossing is dark and edgy. The tone is clear from the first sentence: “Some people collect coins or stamps, but I collect socks.”
Lina lives with her English teacher father in a house with no television. Her best friend, Vanessa, lives across the street with a mother who, since her divorce, has become obsessed with making cascarones, confetti-filled eggshells one cracks over another’s head as a joke. It doesn’t take long to suspect a Parent Trap-like setup is in the works.
The narrative is energized by typical issues of young adulthood: sports wins and defeats, crushes on boys, jealousies and failing grades. All the while, the underlying issue is the death of Lina’s mother. Lopez weaves this theme of grief through the book in a subtle, often lovely way: “My tears plot into the ocean. I’ve tasted tears before. They’re salty, just like the water below, and I wonder if the ocean is made of tears from the people and all the animals that have lost their mothers.”
A pleasant read overall, the novel still has cringeworthy moments, from hokey puns (“Holey socks aren’t for angels.”) to characterizations that verge on affectation, such as the father who quotes literature at what seems like every possible moment. For Lina’s science project, she learns that whooping cranes mate for life. Her caricature-of-a-father immediately channels Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 “… so they understand. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
The book is sprinkled with Spanish dichos—a great idea, though it becomes annoying when each is immediately translated, preventing readers from extrapolating from context or consulting the glossary at the end of the book.
In contrast to Border Crossing‘s classic Texas aesthetic and tense struggle with race issues, Confetti Girl thrives on references to national pop culture, such as the television show Ugly Betty, and seems secure in the Latino presence permeating Corpus Christi. Both books succeed at their different purposes, but Border Crossing is the novel whose prose is more likely to stick with the reader and whose story you’ll almost certainly want to pass on to those YA readers in your life, young or old.
Mary Helen Specht will be moderating the session “Elizabeth Berg and Amanda Eyre Ward in Conversation” at the Texas Book Festival. Find her online at maryhelenspecht.com.