Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

I read this one for our mother-daughter book club; one of the 13 year olds picked it. It's Twilight for werewolf lovers, and there are no vampires at all. But there is the whole "I love my boy/girl friend and nothing else matters as much as being together" and "we can't be together because my boyfriend is a freak and I can't let anybody know about it" thing that is the distilled essence of Twilight. And that's how I know I am old: because I've had enough of that.

The main characters are Sam, the werewolf, and Grace, the girl he has loved ever since she was 11 and attacked by werewolves, and he saved her. Since then, she has loved the wolves and he has obsessed about her, and they finally meet when she's 17 and he's 18. And in Stiefvater's conception, transformation happens when it gets cold, so as Minnesota winter approaches, Sam is vulnerable. It also looks like this will be his last chance to be human—at some point, usually much later in life, werewolves just don't change back into humans and they live a shortened wolf life-span. This is Sam's last chance to be human.

Of course, like so many YA tropes, the existence of werewolves has to be kept secret, because adults wouldn't be able to handle the truth and would (obviously! God!) just hunt down and slaughter the pack. So Grace has to figure out how to keep Sam warm enough to stay human, while solving the mystery of a classmate's disappearance and has to fight off a she-wolf who wants Sam to take over the pack. So Grace is gifted with two of the most absent and incompetent parents in the history of literature. Dad is never home, Mom is a spacy artist who grabs cereal to eat in front of the TV on the few occasions she's outside her studio. Grace cooks all the meals, which her parents are never home to eat, and occasionally gets calls on her cell when her parents decide to stay away for a weekend.

Which is mostly just fine, because that means Sam can move into Grace's bedroom and her parents never notice. Early in the plot, a classmate (Jack) is reported killed by wolves, but there is no body because he's actually been turned into a werewolf. Jack's a bit of an ass, and school is actually more pleasant with his absence, but he doesn't stay away. He also has an inconveniently nosy sister, Isabelle, who thinks Grace knows something about the wolves and her brother. Between all these students, they figure out that Grace was bitten and should have turned, but apparently a fortuitously timed fever killed the toxin. So now Sam is about to go permanently wolf-shaped, Jack is losing what little mind and patience he had by turning back and forth, and Jack has bitten Grace's friend Olivia who is about to turn wolf for the first time.

Isabelle manages to get three vials of blood from a meningitis patient, and she and Grace inject Jack. Jack suffers for three days and then dies. Olivia choses to turn wolf, so she leaves a note for her parents to say she is running away and they shouldn't look for her. Sam gets half an injection before he turns animal. Logic dictates that a meningitis fever can't burn away the wolf while the patient is in wolf shape, so he's probably not going to get better. There's no way to tell for certain, because he runs out the open door and into the woods, as sick animals will. After a couple of pages where Grace finally gives up looking for Sam in wolf form, he shows up human Happily Ever After The End.

And I am tired of this. I'm tired of YA characters having to keep all these Big Secrets and fight these life and death battles with Absolutely No Adults they can trust or ask for help or advise or ANYTHING. The kind of message 13 year olds NEED to get from their literature is that adults are Big Stupid Dummies who Can't Be Trusted and who will only Interfere and Make Things Worse. Make no mistake, because the biggest market for these books are 11-13 year olds. Maybe we need to blame Shakespeare, because the template was set by Romeo and Juliet, and of course they shouldn't trust either the Montagues or the Capulets.

Sure, there's the developmentally appropriate process of a seventeen year old to separate from her parents, but does so much YA literature have to throw these kids so completely on their own resources? There are no positive adult relationships—no teachers they could turn to, no advice seeking from other adults or even older college kids. Every adult in this book is absent (Grace's dad), vapid and disconnected (Grace's mom) or dangerously violent (Sam's biological parents, Sam's werewolf mentor, Jack and Isabelle's dad). The world of this novel is entirely limited to teen agers. I'd have felt less annoyed if they had turned to a science teacher to ask about the meningitis, for example, or even gone to a library and spoken to the librarian. Instead we get a parade of horrible parenting.

  • Sam's parents saw him turning into a wolf when he was 11, so they held him down in the bathtub and slit his wrists trying to bleed the disease out of him.
  • Sam's werewolf mentor decided he needed werewolves who would still be human in the spring to support the pack, so he went out and bit some teens, tied them up in the back of his van and brought them to his house.
  • Jack's dad organized the hunt to kill the pack that he thought killed his son, and also keeps stuffed hunting trophies in the house.
  • Grace's mother makes a single attempt to counsel her daughter, but when rebuffed she gives up and leaves the scene.
  • Grace's dad is a workaholic who only comes home in order to go away for the weekend with Grace's mom.

So Grace and Sam live for weeks together in her empty house and nobody knows about it. It just annoys me because it overtly sends the message that whenever any important life (and death!) issues come along, teens should just handle them on their own.

I'd rather see these kind of things be handled with a sense of a larger community. Some writers have started to explore what happens when these groups—vampires, werewolves, etc.—come out of the shadows and have to be absorbed into society. True Blood is all about what happens when vampires are no longer myth, for example. I'm not na├»ve enough to think that YA novels are going to all start promoting healthy parent-child relationships, but what good does it do to show the kids so completely alone? Even Harry Potter had Dumbledore and McGonagall to help him out sometimes.

Can we also maybe can the "destined for each other for eternity" meme as well? It's rather unhealthy, I think, in this day and age to portray seventeen year olds as fated to be mated. We are even told that Grace has never even had a boyfriend—so we're even treated to the old "virgin's first lover" trope. (Has Sam had a girlfriend, or even a wolf mate? We don't know, but it's not ruled out in clear way Grace is overtly signaled to be a virgin.) I can't help but think that Grace is going to want to have a life—to go to college, to travel with her friend Rachel, to not just move from being her parents' caretaker to taking care of her boyfriend and his wolf pack. Maybe he would like to do some of that himself as well. Sure, he's grateful she saved his live and all, but do they really have all that much in common?

I know, I know—this is just a tween/teen friendly romance novel, and asking for realism is like asking for Cinderella's shoe size—it misses the point. Still, I'm bothered by the insidious messages that lie just beneath the romantic story, and I dislike what those messages say about the proper behavior for heroes and heroines.


Hyde 'N Seek said...

Hi Evil,
I was wondering if you read Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and what your thoughts are? I saw that you read Eat, Pray, Love...?

Cate Ross said...

I've read the reviews of Committed but I don't have any immediate plans to read the book. Maybe if someone leaves it behind on the same swap shelf where I found Eat, Pray, Love I'll pick it up.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Sam the werewolf is a little too much True Blood-ish for me, LOL. But I agree with the whole "my entire world is my boyfriend/girlfriend" gets tiresome after a while.