- Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
After a decade publishing gothic fantasy bestsellers, Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) returned to realism with her 2018 young adult title Hearts Unbroken. This book is not just realist; it is the most vivid, timely, gut-wrenchingly realistic YA novel I have read.
Hearts Unbroken opens with Muscogee protagonist Louise (Lou) Wolfe deciding, during a post-junior prom brunch, that she has "had enough" of her "WASPy" boyfriend Cam's "ego and attitude" (10). SAIL readers will readily see why. In this brief first chapter, while discussing his mom's disapproval of his brother's Kickapoo fiancé, Cam jokes that "Kickapoo sounds like a dog," untenably claims to be "part Cherokee," laments that "Girls are so sensitive," lashes out at the food service employee who stands up for Lou, and dismisses Lou's concern that his family could turn their anti-Native sentiments on her by policing Lou's identity: "It's not like you're Indian Indian. You live in East Hannesburg. Your dad is a dentist" (7–9). Cam's behavior may sound over-the-top, [End Page 242] but Smith's prose renders this scene entirely believable. In fact, some readers may side with Cam—portrayed with some sympathy as a tired guy who just doesn't want to "fight at prom"—while others cringe at the disturbingly commonplace nature of his chauvinism (9). Smith's brilliance, here and throughout Hearts Unbroken, lies in her ability to illuminate everyday intersectional oppression while telling a story that is as riveting as it is realistic.
After dumping Cam, Lou leads us, with increasingly self-reflective first-person narration, through the summer and into her senior year in the fictional town of East Hannesburg, Kansas. She navigates her new role as a journalist for her school paper, a new romance with a fellow reporter named Joey, and new expressions of old bigotries. The loudest bigots belong to Parents Against Revisionist Theater (PART), a group created to protest the inclusive casting policy of the school's drama teacher after two students of color and one Native American student—Lou's younger brother, Hughie—land leading roles in the school's production of the Wizard of Oz. Lou supports Hughie as he deals with PART's bullying and wrestles to decide whether or not he should quit the play when he learns that Oz-author Frank Baum wrote newspaper editorials advocating for "the total extermination of the Indians" (176).
Astute readers will connect the dots between Baum's and PART's rhetoric. While less overtly genocidal, PART similarly suggests that the United States exclusively belongs to white settlers. In addition to their public anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant statements, PART affiliates deliver anonymous threats to Hughie and his Black and Latinx fellow Oz cast members. Every threat includes the same phrase: "'There is no place like home.' Go back to where you came from" (101, 105, 142–43, 158, 224). Beyond the simple irony of descendants of European immigrants telling an Indigenous person to "go back" somewhere, these bullies' reference to the famous Oz line, especially when read in relation to Baum's editorials, opens larger questions about whose home and what kind of home North America has been, is, and can be.
Baum's editorials and PART's threats are not the only bigoted expressions in Hearts Unbroken. As in the opening chapter with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Cam, Lou experiences and witnesses everyday forms of colonialism, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia throughout the novel. Early in the story, Lou is turned off by a potential love interest when he casually associates American Indians with alcoholics [End Page 243] (25). Later, Lou's lunch outing with her family gets disrupted when the restaurant's four TV screens, tuned to a fashion channel, flash to a white model strutting down the runway in a "turquoise mini" and "enormous Plains-Indian-inspired headdress" (100). On her first date with Joey, at the local bowling alley, Lou becomes distracted from their conversation by the Kansas City Chiefs...