Wintergirls (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

29 10 2010

It’s always quite tricky for this cat to review a book when the actual topic is something she really has no affinity with. At first sight, Wintergirls is such a book. It deals with Lia, an anorexic 18-year-old,  in the aftermath of her friend Cassie’s death, a death also linked to an eating disorder.  Although I’ve read quite a bit about the psychological mechanisms behind eating disorders (the need for control, the perfectionism etc.), in essence anorexia is something I will never be able to understand. That said, just like Speak wasn’t a book just about a rape, Wintergirls is not a book just about an eating disorder. Both are books about self-respect and facing your worst nightmares and fears.

Laurie Halse Anderson is a voice to be reckoned with.  She often writes about these unspeakable issues that almost seem to define the darkest sides of adolescence.  Perhaps this is the reason why her books often end up on ‘Most banned’ lists. Teachers, libraries, websites, school boards, etc. that do this (ban a book like Speak, or Wintergirls) completely miss the mark. Often you have to wonder whether a. these people realize what’s actually going on in the minds of teenagers these days;  and b. whether they have actually read the book they’re accusing of being pornographic, sexually immoral, sexually too explicit (shocking: homosexuality exists!) or whatever (sex is usually the baddie, of course).  One of the often heard reasons is that ‘we have to protect our teens’. My question is… against what? Do these people really attribute all that ‘innocence’ to teenagers? I mean, it would be an endearing concept (though still quite unforgivable) if their motives for banning a book would at least be kosher, but usually a book is banned because it just doesn’t fit in someone’s one-sided world view. And it’s much easier to ignore something, of course, when it’s not actually there to be ignored. (BTW, interesting side note: some schools have even banned the dictionary).

Anyway, back to Wintergirls. Not only is the subject matter of Wintergirls extremely dark, writing the story as a first person narrative intensifies the reader experience. In Speak we were already deep in Melinda’s head, but in Wintergirls Lia’s inner thought process takes us all over her destructive mind. Lia rationalizes her obsession with ‘becoming zero’, but as a reader you can only conclude that Lia’s internal battle will lead her to self-destruction: “I won the wintergirl trip over the border into dangerland. (…) I strip, stand on it [the scales], to weigh my faults and measure my sins. (…)Zero pounds, zero life, size zero, double-zero, zero point. Zero in tennis is love. I finally get it.” (p. 219-220)

You have to give Anderson props here… this is a story that could easily have ended up in a weep-fest or a blame-marathon. Instead, you get nothing of the sort. Yes, Lia’s story is a sad story, that’s a given, but the skill with which Anderson describes the illness is impressive. The insight we get into Lia’s mind is almost surgical (not surprisingly, Lia’s mother is a heart-surgeon). Lia writes down what she really thinks, then edits her own thoughts and writes what she ‘should be feeling’.

Anderson’s writing style is raw and haunting. This subject matter is dark and destructive. The book can be hard to handle emotionally. Does all this mean it should be put on a ‘Banned’ list? Hell no! Should teens be cautioned about it?  Meh… I’m not quite convinced. Should the book be put in the right perspective when a teen proposes the book. Yes, most certainly! However, any serious teacher or any decent librarian would probably do this to whichever book their students choose to read. You try to explain the author’s preoccupations, you try to clarify themes, provide a certain framework,  present alternatives.  In short: you let them make up their own mind.

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24 07 2012
Beach Reads « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] of books with similar such Serious Topics (teen depression, suicide, auto-mutilation, anorexia (here and here)) has been published. For putting self-harm on the YA agenda, you’ve got to give […]

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