Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review of "Burned"

Pattyn Von Stratten's story, told through journal entries written in verse, is undeniably a story that drew me in.  It's a fast read, and a page-turner.


I've got to admit, I've got some qualms about this book.

The book starts out with Pattyn blossoming as a finishing high school junior taking tentative steps out of her secluded Mormon (we'll talk about this in a second) family's rules by reading books from the school library.  She devours Le'Engle, Tolkien, Austen, knowing that she's got to hide them, as her father forbids them.  Sex dreams follow, which come with confusion and guilt and questioning how much she can control things like this when God disapproves -- how can she control herself in her sleep?  Again, Pattyn takes tentative steps to questioning her faith.  But when she asks her mother about her role in life and gets the answer that it's essentially to make babies, Pattyn becomes defiant.  This isn't the life she wants.  Neither does she want to marry a nice Mormon boy as she's expected to -- not when her father is an abusive man who spends a good portion of his time a) drinking (he confesses to the Bishop regularly, then continues) or b) beating his wife.

Seeking solace, Pattyn takes to shooting out in the dessert, practicing with the rifle that she's learned to use (with her father's help -- he had 7 daughters and always wanted a son, and while Pattyn certainly isn't the son he wanted, he was content to at least teach her to shoot).

But it's not enough, and as the dreams continue, and Pattyn continues to question her faith, she also finds herself falling for a boy in her class, Derek.  And when her dessert wanderings slowly become dessert trysts, trouble lies ahead.

Caught, Pattyn is sent to live with her Aunt J in Caliente, Nevada, where life is suddenly heaven.  There are horses to learn to ride, cows to herd, and best of all, Ethan -- the boy who lives just down the road, and who quickly falls just as hard for Pattyn as she does for him.  This is no tryst in the dessert, Pattyn realizes.  This is "forever love".

But the heaven of Nevada with Aunt J and Ethan can only last but so long.  There are stories of the nuclear tests that have ruined lives, brush fires, and cougars.  and there are dark secrets that Aunt J reveals to Pattyn; secrets about the death threat that Pattyn's father made to Aunt J and her lover when they were young, the violence that tore Aunt J's heart and life apart.  But, there's still this "forever love" that keeps everyone together...

Until the end of the summer, when the shoe drops.  Pattyn receives a letter from one of her younger sisters, Jackie, a plea for help as Pattyn's father has turned from beating their mom to beating Jackie.  Rage builds as Pattyn struggles with what to do.  She wants to stay with Aunt J and Ethan, wants to never see her family again (Jackie is the only one who's made any contact with her all summer after Pattyn's exile in shame and disgrace as punishment).  Finally, Pattyn breaks down and tells Ethan about her father, and about what he's done in the past, the death threats he made to Derek and Aunt J's lover, and the death threat he'd surely make to Ethan if he and Pattyn's love were to be discovered.

As she packs up and leaves, everything begins to spiral out of control.  Ethan gifts her with a handgun to protect herself with, in the event that the abuse and death threats come to fruition, and they're back to her home.

Pattyn gets home, and the new in-love, horse-riding cattle-driving brave Pattyn stands up to her father.  Her father is out of control, and the beating she receives brings her down.  Determined not to let this control her life, Pattyn makes the decision to get out and away, and calls Ethan, begging him to take her away.  But when icy roads and a daring escape go wrong, Pattyn's life is left shattered, and the book ends with her on her way to shoot up the sanctuary of her church to avenge the lives that have been ended.  (I say "lives" because in addition to Ethan dying, Pattyn and Ethan's unborn child is also killed -- yes, the standard condom-broke-pregnancy also shows up in this book.)


Okay, so, first: This book is a fast and easy read, and the poetic verse format that it's written in is interesting, and conveys the emotions of Pattyn throughout her ordeals palpable

However...first, this book portrays Mormonism as being a religioun of abusive, mean and unforgiving people.  It leaves no room for any sympathetic Mormon character -- every single Mormon character is in some way bad.  Pattyn's "friends" from church betray her by telling about her and Derek in the dessert by gossip.  The women of the church tell Pattyn that her role in life is to be a baby machine.  Her father is an alcoholic abuser.  The church Bishop tells Pattyn that she's sinful for having dreams, accidentally breaking a window, and for falling in love.  The morning meeting leader for the youth just plain doesn't know anything enough to answer a simply question from Pattyn about sex dreams.  Jackie, Pattyn's younger sister, is sympathetic because she's being abused, but even she's said by Pattyn to be falling right in line with "propaganda."

I just feel like Hopkins might have done well to present even one good Mormon character, considering how much flak Mormonism gets all the time.  Keep the negative characters, that's fine, but don't portray this all as the norm.  It never gives Mormonism a break in the book.  EVER.  It's all like this.  Apparently, Hopins (a Lutheran) has stated in interviews that that "the references to the Mormon religion are accurate" and that "every religion can be home to extremists" -- sure, every religion can be home to extremists, but the problem here is that Hopkins never makes ANY attempt to show that this is extremist.  In the novel, this is portrayed as accurately normal for Mormonism.

Secondly, the story is written in poetic verse.  I'm a fan of this format, but I do take issue with the contrived way that so many of the pieces are written.  At first, it's interesting when Pattyn writes about crying and the poems are in the shape of tears.  But after the 50th time, it gets a little old.  I feel like Hopkins could have branched out a little more from the set patterns she made in the story.  Although on the other hand Pattyn's young, and it could simply be Hopkins's way of showing that Pattyn's not a brilliant poet or anything. So maybe the jury's out on this one.  It annoyed me after a while though, in the end.

Third (I know, I know, I'm complaining about this book a lot here, aren't I?  I just can't give it a glowing review):  This story is incredibly predictable, and the ending of Pattyn solving her problem by planning (and presumably carrying out) a killing spree is...a bit much.  I think Hopkins was going for a story in which we see the downward spiral of a girl who eventually pulls a Columbine, but having recently read Dave Cullen's Columbine, I'm skeptical and feel like the book is a little ham-fisted and heavy-handed, and adheres more to the myths surrounding Columbine's killers and what could cause that downward spiral, rather than relying on factual evidence.  It's predictable -- the gun shows up time and time again, with shooting and killing being major things on Pattyn's mind, and she consistently cannot understand how someone could kill a human, until suddenly her lover dies (and the abuse to her sister, but the catalyst does clearly point to this death) and she's ready to go kill a whole bunch of people.  And speaking of the killing-spree ending, it takes two poems for Pattyn to arrive at the idea and get to the point where she's gearing up to go in shooting.  Two poems, as opposed to the five-hundred-ish ones to get us to that point.  It comes so fast at the end that I had to re-read them.  Though I guessed at about halfway through the book that it'd end with Pattyn killing people, the actual end result seemed incredibly rushed, as though Hopkins had an editor who told her that look, you can't actually go into detail about a killing spree in a YA novel, so they just cut it down to two poems entailing her intent, and that's it.

In the end, I have no idea if Hopkins intends for me as a reader to feel sympathetic towards Pattyn or not.  And considering the ending here, I think that's an issue.  Am I being asked to laud her, or not?  This is not a morally ambiguous issue if she's going into that church to murder a whole bunch of people as she alludes to.  This story doesn't make me understand Pattyn.  To understand the whole Columbine thing, Dave Cullen has it hands down, factually, etc.  Hopkins seems to be writing about something that she's sort of...taking from the myths surrounding Columbine, rather than the actual details about Eric and Dylan.  It's capitalizing on the way some people seem to think that the boys were abused in school and were standing up for themselves by their murdering spree, and I feel like Hopkins is buying into that...I don't know, I just don't feel comfortable with it.

The author's note at the back?  Tells me that Hopkins hopes that this book has made me fall in love with Nevada the way she has, and that the stories of fallout testing are true, and says NOTHING about the whole shooting-spree thing at the end.  La de da, Hopkins?  She's playing with fire here, and I just take issue with the ending and the lack of any clear intention about how the reader is intended to react.

Finally, one last issue: the book begins with Pattyn reading Le'Engle, Tolkien and Austen (among others).  If someone (and I've known radical conservative Christians in my lifetime who would and HAVE said these things) wanted to say that these sorts of books lead to evil, well, a story that ends in a killing spree starts with the protagonist reading these and taking baby steps from there.  Sure, anyone who could put pieces together could see that it wasn't the books that lead her in any way towards her end.  But at the same time, A leads to B which leads to C which leads to D which leads to E which leads to F...  I do not like this.

The thing is, ultimately, I was drawn into the book.  I really was.  I didn't put it down during my lunch breaks.  But in the end, I just have a lot of issues with it, and I'm left not really being a fan.

Here's the author's letter reference above in full from her website:

I want my readers to know I am not anti-religion. In fact, I go to 
church (I happen to be Lutheran) regularly, and even sing in the 
choir. However, every religion can be home to extremists. Pattyn's 
family is an extreme (not to mention dysfunctional) example of the 
LDS faith. I do know fine Mormons, with a strong focus on family 
that I respect.

Still, my personal feeling is that any religion that considers women 
"inferior" deserves a hard look. The references to the Mormon 
religion are accurate. I worked with a great, great granddaughter 
of Joseph Smith (founder of the LDS church), who left the church 
in her early 20s because of concerns like Pattyn's.

Truly, I didn't start out to write Burned about any religion, but about 
a girl who winds up in a Columbine-type situation. I needed to bring 
her to a place where that was the only option she could consider. 
As I wrote the character, she happened to resemble a Mormon girl 
who I knew. I once visited her apartment. She and her boyfriend 
had stockpiled weapons and explosives against the coming "End 
of Times" forewarned by her church. The character of Pattyn von 
Stratten was likely born on that visit.

That said, Burned is a work of fiction. Pattyn is damaged not by her 
religion, but by her father. I give reasons for her father being the 
way he is. They involve war. His own upbringing. His own damaged 
past. In the face of his abuse, Pattyn begins to question her place 
in the world. And her religion is a big part of her world.

I just can't take Hopkins seriously here.  This isn't a Columbine-type situation, except for the fact that there's a character with a gun who plans to kill.  That's where the likeness ceases.

If Hopkins actually liked and respected Mormons the way she claims to, she wouldn't have been so unrelenting, and she would have made it clear that her portrayal is extremist.

There's a difference between taking issue with the tenets of a particular faith and exploring them, and putting everything that religion entails under a big blanket of evil, and showing all followers of that faith to be blind sheep, stupid, abusive, neglectful, etc.  Big difference.

The fact is, she presented Pattyn's family and church as being the norm. And finally, I take issue with her "I HAVE BLACK FRIENDS, I CAN'T BE RACIST!" Internet-argument style (replace "black" with Mormon here, etc.).  If she used that argument anywhere on the Interwebs she'd be called out faster than a really fast thing.

Sorry to be a negative Nelly, guys.

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