- We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough
Trade ed. ISBN 9780525556053 $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780525556077 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys Ad Gr. 9–12
Em—short for Marianne—has been a tireless advocate and fighter since her older sister, Nor, was raped by a member of the college football team. Now Nor’s rapist has been let off with no punishment despite being found guilty, and Em’s rage knows no bounds. Struggling to find a way to deal with her anger, she explores it by writing a historical free-verse narrative about the 15th century Frenchwoman Marguerite de Bressieux, who took up the sword to avenge her family’s murder and her and her sister’s rape. There’s horrifying authenticity in the book’s depiction of the social-media reviling of Nor (under the hashtag #IgNorTheWhore) and also in Em’s ongoing failure to account for others, whether it be her sister or Em’s new nonbinary friend, Jess, as she seethes and crusades. The book’s intense focus on the price women continually pay, whether in the past or now, for male privilege (“To service men/with our bodies/would be appropriate// To speak/our minds:/ obscene,” says Marguerite bitterly) will resonate with many young readers. Marguerite’s story (drawn from a legend that’s considered unlikely to be historical fact) is unfortunately not that compelling, however, since it’s a heavy-handed ahistorical narrative that takes forever to get to the satisfying revenge fantasy. Additionally, the present-day story starts to lose focus with revelations about Em’s mother’s past and her own accidental injury, and there’s very little acknowledgment in either strand of the kinds of privilege both Em and Marguerite do possess. Downham’s Furious Thing (BCCB 12/19 and Caletti’s Girl, Unframed (BCCB 6/20) are more cogent explorations of female anger, but the truths here may still resonate. The final copy will include an author’s note.