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YA/Adult Crossover, Literary/Historical, 168 pages, West Virginia University Press
- Series: stand-alone
- Pub date: October 1st 2011
- Disclosure: Received a review copy from the author. Thanks!
Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away.
Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town.
Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.
I firmly believe that literary fiction and YA are not mutually exclusive. I've read plenty of YA novels I'd call literary (Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff, anyone?), and plenty of literary bildungsroman novels I'd call YA (White Oleander by Janet Fitch being a prime example). As someone who writes and reads literary and YA about equally, I'm always sad to see the bitter battles that seem to be waged between the two, with both sides just as firmly in their trenches. That's why I was so excited to get a review request for Ugly to Start With: a collection of short stories previously published in literary journals, gathered together to form a cohesive narrative of a young boy growing up in West Virginia in the 1970's. It was pitched to me as a double-dipper, at the forefront of genre-mashing, and I was happy to say yes.
And at the beginning, I wasn't disappointed. Cummings' writing is a little rambly, but his setting is rendered so pitch-perfectly, and his characters so relatable and heartbreaking, that I couldn't help but fall in love. Here's something great, I thought. Finally, finally, a bridge between two genres to show that they aren't so far apart after all.
And then. (You knew there was going to be an "and then.")
And then I read two stories that colored my impressions of the rest of the book, and left me thinking it wasn't so great after all. The first, "Carter," is about the friendship (and eventual sexual relationship) Jason strikes up with the neighborhood homosexual. The second, "The Scratchboard Project," is about ("white trash") Jason's flirtation with a poor black girl. Both fail utterly at nuance, and instead come across as merely ugly. There is a difference, I feel, between telling the world as you see it, and telling the world like you feel others will see it--and these two stories, I feel, fall into the latter category.
The story of the gay pedophile who causes the young hero to question his sexuality is an extremely tired (and sickening) cliche, while the story of the white boy changing his perception of "The Other" by falling in love is equally problematic. I refuse to sit back and get called oversensitive on this one--I call a spade a spade when I see one, and through their refusal to critique and broaden the cliche instead of just fumble into it, these stories border on bigoted. The author clearly writes with experience--couldn't he have found more human stories to tell?
I truly wish they both had been simply left out of the collection, because the rest of the book is enjoyable and interesting--but now, instead of being able to recommend them wholeheartedly, I'm just left with a bad taste in my mouth.
...and the Short:
An interesting bridge between literary fiction and YA that's ruined by a couple of cliched, ugly stories.
The Final Word: Meh.