Why I think you should read Laura Moriarty’s American Heart
Because I’m a fan of the Laura Moriarty’s novel The Chaperone, I “liked” her author page. That’s how I entered a drawing and got my hands on an ARC of American Heart; Moriarity asked if anyone wanted to take a look at her new novel, and I said, sure, why not? Please note that I’ve never met the author. We’re not even Facebook friends.
I glanced at the jacket copy:
A powerful and thought-provoking YA debut from New York Times bestselling author Laura Moriarty.
Imagine a United States in which registries and detainment camps for Muslim-Americans are a reality.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams of Hannibal, Missouri, lives in this world, and though she has strong opinions on almost everything, she isn’t concerned with the internments because she doesn’t know any Muslims. She assumes that everything she reads and sees in the news is true, and that these plans are better for everyone’s safety.
But when she happens upon Sadaf, a Muslim fugitive determined to reach freedom in Canada, Sarah-Mary at first believes she must turn her in. But Sadaf challenges Sarah-Mary’s perceptions of right and wrong, and instead Sarah-Mary decides, with growing conviction, to do all she can to help Sadaf escape.
The two set off on a desperate journey, hitchhiking through the heart of an America that is at times courageous and kind, but always full of tension and danger for anyone deemed suspicious.
Eventually, I started reading and did what I always do: logged into Goodreads to update my reading progress. That’s when I saw what was happening.
I was immediately reminded of Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture article, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter.”
I’m a 49-year old white, cis-het, Midwestern woman. I’m a writer, a teacher of writing, an academic–much like the author herself. I think of myself as progressive–certainly more “woke” than most of the people with whom I grew up, but maybe not as much as others. Staying woke is why I write and why I teach. I want to learn, I want to do better, I want to be the best human being I can be.
And I really do want to understand the point of view of anyone *who has read this book* and believes that it is racist. And I hope you will try to understand my point of view as someone who has read the book and believes that it is not racist, although the main character is.
Sarah Mary as Huckleberry
Moriarty wants us to read American Heart as a novel that’s in conversation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The main character Sarah Mary lives in Hannibal, MO, and her name rhymes with “Huckleberry.”Her best friend is Tess/Tom, and she’s got a crap parent, too. There are plenty of other parallels, too, and and at times, Sarah Mary’s voice even has the cadence of Huck’s.
I taught Huck Finn in my American literature classes for many years because I believe that it gets at the heart of the American problem: institutionalized racism and white privilege, systems that are so woven into the fabric of our society that they’ve completely warped our sense of what’s right and wrong.
Twain once described Huckleberry Finn as a book in which “a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision & conscience suffers a defeat.”
Huck believes that turning in his friend Jim (what his conscience says) is what’s right, and that helping him escape (what his heart says) is what’s wrong–so wrong that he honestly believes he will go to hell for it. Hence that famous, satirical, so-sad-you-have-to-laugh line, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
There are plenty of things wrong with Huck Finn, most egregiously the use of the n-word, Jim’s depiction and dialect, and the crappy ending, but there are things right with it, too. It always got my students talking and thinking about their own warped consciences. I know that in at least a few instances, Huck Finn gave my students courage to follow their hearts.
(How did my African-American students feel about Huck Finn? No one ever refused to read it, but I know it made them uncomfortable. And honestly, if I ever get to teach American lit again, I don’t know if I’d assign this book. I’m torn about that.)
Sarah Mary conscience has been warped by the Islamophobia of her family and her culture, and yes, it’s hard to read the first third of the book from the point of view of someone who is hateful in the same clueless and callous way as so many Americans. What I *hope* happens when young people and adults read this book is a shock of recognition: Sarah Mary’s “casual” Islamophobia is their own.
Other Dystopian Fiction
I also think of this book in conversation with the TV adaptations of The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale.
While I love the “resistance” subplots of these shows, I also find myself fascinated by the hateful, authoritarian characters who are in power. How do authoritarians think, how do they rationalize their actions, and how does that thinking make its way into the culture and the hearts and minds of the people?
Because man oh man, we need to try to understand that so that we can be agents of change.
“People Like That”
I remember in graduate school, I wrote a story about a character who believes that abortion is sin. She learns that her daughter has had an abortion and is trying to figure out how to respond. Now, I’m firmly pro-choice, but my character was not, just like so many people I knew growing up, and it felt important to me for that sake of that story to try to understand that point of view.
I remember a woman in my workshop saying, “I’m sure that there are people like this in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about them.” That was 25 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten that moment.
Did she mean that:
A.) Should the story be published, she’d opt not to read it?
B.) The story should never be published?
C.) The story should never even be written at all?
Those are the questions I think we’re asking ourselves re: American Heart.
If your answer is B or C, then I please, help me understand that point of view, because personally, I think that’s censorship and very, very un-American.
If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. Let’s talk about why.
But, like Colonel Sherburn in Huck Finn, I’m not going to engage with a mob. That’s the “pitifulest thing” because they don’t “fight with the courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass.”
Further Reading, Further Doing
- If you’re a Ball State student, get involved in this VBC project in Spring 2018, “Muslims in Muncie.”
- Adiba Jaigirdar in Book Riot: “Books by Muslims to Support Instead of Reading American Heart.“
- I can’t link to Moriarty’s starred review on Kirkus because it’s been removed by the Editor in Chief. Here is the statement.
- Laura Moriarty’s FB comment about Kirkus taking down its starred review (with a link to that, too).
- Vicky Smith, “On Disagreement,” an editorial from Kirkus in response to the controversy surrounding The Black Witch.
- Articles about the continued controversy of Huckleberry Finn here and here.
- Many have directed me to Justina Ireland’s post on Medium, “American Heart, Huck Finn, and the Trap of White Supremacy.”
I’m writing this on Sunday morning, the day after I first posted. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the responses I’ve been getting and seeing on Moriarty’s FB page.
I don’t believe that the “YA Twitter” community is nothing but “toxic drama.” They accomplished this!
I’m do care that Muslim readers have said how deeply this book offended them. I care about that lot. This is why I included my disclaimer–I can’t know what it’s like to read this book as someone else, and we must listen to their concerns.
Frequently these days, college instructors assign novels that students say they don’t want to read. Is there a difference between a religious student balking at this LGBTQ novel and an African-American student balking at that novel about slavery? There shouldn’t be. We say to these students, “This is an important book. I’m sorry that it makes you uncomfortable, but I need you to read it.”
So is American Heart an important book? Maybe.
These months before a book comes out are so crucial. The book gets made somewhere in a book bindery, but it’s moving down a different kind of conveyer belt, too, not the physical book, but rather how people feel about the book. And that is also very much a made thing.
Critical reviews play an important role in how we “pass sentence” on a book, but these days, community reviews matter a whole lot, too. Publishers want to create as much good buzz as they can. Heck, I teach literary citizenship and show my students how to participate in this vetting process! I show them how to join a digital community and make the world a better place for books.
But this situation with American Heart is something else. This is activism. This is getting involved in the vetting process as early as possible. This is not letting the cultural gatekeepers have the final say on what’s good literature and what’s not. Kirkus, for example, is one of the most respected pre-publication review venues; their reviews help libraries, bookstores, and media outlets decide what to pay attention to. The fact that Kirkus removed its starred review of American Heart demonstrates that the online activism against this book has done its job–it’s blown up the conveyor belt and disrupted the usual channels through which books are vetted.
Michael Cader said that “publishing is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby.” And these days, everyone in that massive hobby is connected in ways they’ve never been before. They have power to disrupt the tiny industry. Heck, they have the power to bypass the tiny industry altogether and create their own tiny industry and vet and buy their own damn books if they want. I think that’s really exciting, and I want my students to be a part of that.
But I also want really good reviewers at Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly to weigh in and tell me what they think, too. I don’t have time to read every book for myself. I barely had time to read American Heart! I need people I trust to tell me what I should pay attention to. I certainly pay attention to what an online community says, but I also need good book reviewers, too.
The fact that Kirkus–one of my most trusted outlets–has removed their review chills me to the bone.
So is American Heart an important book? How will we ever figure this out now?
This post started off as my Goodreads review of American Heart, but it’s also written in the spirit of a new writing initiative in my department, “What to Write About.” Last week, the prompt was “free speech,” and I think this book and the controversy surrounding it speaks directly to that topic. Here’s an article about why freedom of expression on college campuses is important, and here’s the other side of that argument about restricting hate speech.