My tote bag slid off my shoulder onto the ground. I could still feel the imprint of her hand on my shoulder, still smell the faintest trace of smoke on my clothes. Mandarin Ramey had spoken to me.
And not only that...
Mandarin Ramey knew my name.
I gazed out the window across the hall. Great sheets of earth swept into mesas furry with sage, then tumbled brokenly into valleys. The only color in the landscape was an early patch of Indian paintbrushes with blooms like ruby shards. As I watched, several red-winged blackbirds startled and took flight.
Author: Kirsten Hubbard
Synopsis: Everyone in the tiny town of Washokey, Wyoming knows two things about seventeen-year-old Mandarin Ramey: first, she’s beautiful, and second, she’s a slut. But for fourteen-year-old good girl Grace Carpenter, Mandarin is the ideal—carefree, sensual, noticed everywhere she goes. When Grace is asked to tutor Mandarin so the latter can graduate, the two strike up a tenuous, passionate friendship on the premise that both of them are searching for freedom. As Grace attempts to emulate her idol, she must face the reality of who Mandarin is, and the fragile bond between them is tested by betrayal from both sides.
Notes: Four times in the past two years, I’ve driven long, straight I-25 between Montana and Colorado through Wyoming’s vast stretches of hills and plains. For love of that drive, and for love of a well-written sense of place, I’ve long wanted to pick up Hubbard’s debut.
There's a danger in working from a premise like this book's, in that an author portraying a discontented small-town teenager can do an injustice to such places and the people who live in them. It is not uncommon for young people in the process of self-discovery to unjustly devalue aspects of their lives they've taken a dislike to, especially if they can defend their dislike on some kind of principle. Hubbard, however, rises beyond that danger by giving Grace some comprehension of “the beauty of the badlands” and a character progression that allows her to see the worth of the people around her.
But Grace is no older-and-wiser narrator looking back on years long past; she speaks with a young teenager's voice. This authorial choice for this storyline perhaps introduces another dangerous possibility: that of inadvertently normalizing, if not glamorizing, promiscuity. To Hubbard's credit, though, most readers will recognize from the early pages of the book that Mandarin’s lifestyle doesn't do her any favors, and that Grace’s naive idea that she’d gladly follow Mandarin’s lead is destined to fail one way or another.
The story focuses on characters over plot—though it is by no means plotless—and the characters provide plenty of interest. Mandarin primarily evoked compassion rather than fascination, but Grace’s little sister Taffeta had my attention several times, and I liked Davey every time he came onscreen. As a former small-town girl, I saw a lot of my younger self in him: awkward, hopeful but shy, painfully clueless about what to wear or how self-presentation should work, softhearted and trying hard to be someone people might like but not yet aware enough of what would improve the odds... that was Davey, and he was portrayed with loving accuracy by Kirsten Hubbard despite Grace Carpenter’s disdainful narration.
Grace herself attracts interest and sympathy, if one only remembers that she’s fourteen and will grow out of some of her flippancy and blindnesses. Which leads me to the book’s advisory: Grace makes one offhand anti-Catholic comment, and there’s quite a lot of swearing. There are no actual sex scenes, however. The Tyler experience was darkly uncomfortable and more than a little horrifying, but in context, it needed to be; there was nothing gratuitous about it.
The book is written beautifully, if I might be allowed one quirky little complaint: though similes are a perfectly acceptable literary device, I tend to dislike them. Unless the like/as comparison blends into the rest of the story’s imagery, it jolts me out of the scenery. The similes in this story make themselves a bit too noticeable. Otherwise, Hubbard turns both prose and flow of thought with a fine hand.
Apart from Grace stringing us on a little about an important plot point, the last few chapters were splendid. A lot of young adult authors start strong, writing a lovely first half of the book and then losing their grip on setting and character development when the tension really picks up. If anything, Hubbard’s storytelling grew stronger as the tale went on, culminating in meaningful new understanding for Grace and the three people she most cares for. The story keeps a firm hold on attention and the ending satisfies, and those things, in and of themselves, are achievement enough nowadays.
Recommendation: Read it when the wind blows, and you may find yourself loving the beautiful badlands yourself.