New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith turns to realistic fiction with the thoughtful story of a Native teen navigating the complicated, confusing waters of high school — and first love. When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town. From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students — especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey — but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?
Solidly written with plenty of heart
WHAT I LOVED:
When Louise’s boyfriend Cam first disparages Native people in front of her–specifically his brother’s Kickapoo spouse–he isn’t aware Louise is a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen herself. Then he keeps doing it and has the gall to get mad at her for “being too sensitive.” The instant Louise breaks up with Cam via email, you’ll be feeling relief like you just finished a hard workout. And that’s all before she starts her senior year of high school and the drama department’s Wizard of Oz causes undue controversy!
Like Louise, I was on my high school’s tiny student newspaper. Senior editor, whoop whoop! If it wouldn’t dox me by my former name, I’d link to a couple of the many pieces I wrote during my two years on staff. Leitich Smith really captures what it was like to practice high school journalism in a school where it’s underappreciated. Heck, Louise’s adventures in reporting on happenings around school almost made me miss being on the paper!
Almost. I don’t miss the constant anxiety about ads and getting literal nonsense articles from one classmate/reporter who probably let predictive text write her first drafts rather than writing them herself.
ANYWAY. Hearts Unbroken is a novel that makes the effort to represent what our schools and teens look like in 2018–and knows exactly where we are in 2018, for better or for worse. You decide to do colorblind casting for one student production of a play and suddenly half the town is allied with Parents Against Revisionist Theater because a black girl will play Dorothy. Louise’s little brother Hughie also has a role in the play as the Tin Man, so she’s got an especially personal stake in what happens!
Throughout the book, Leitich Smith confronts Native stereotypes and makes clear what life is like when you’re a Native person living in the current United States. Whether it’s Louise feeling bad that she dumped that racist ex over email (which no, that was appropriate and he has no right to be upset, the racist almost-man) or Hughie struggling with anti-Native racism that Wizard of Oz creater L. Frank Baum spouted during his life, readers come to better understand an underrepresented population.
The local uproar over kids of color being cast in roles typically played by white people has great parallels to Hamilton and discussions of how much of our negative, racist history can be reclaimed through such productions. Words like “queer” have started to be reclaimed by the people whom the word was long used against, but not everyone wants to reclaim it. It’s simply done too much harm to them.
For instance, say someone adapted an Orson Scott Card novel into a play, made a ton of characters queer as a statement, and encouraged queer actors to audition. Considering Card’s rampant homophobia over the years, I can understand queer actors who’d love to take part in order to make Card mad. I can also understand those who wouldn’t be able to put Card’s beliefs aside and act in it in the name of reclamation.
And that’s not even remotely on the same scale as race. It’s complicated and Hearts Unbroken makes no bones about it.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
Louise’s romance with new guy/newspaper rival Joey rubbed me the wrong way in a manner that’s 100% personal, nothing to do with the novel or the character. See, I knew a guy named Joey in high school. He was emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, sexually harassed me “jokingly” whenever I wore a skirt (we were partners in science class), and told me I was something like 47% demon for a ridiculous reason. The name Joey is just ruined for me because I just kept seeing the awful guy I knew instead of this book’s own Joey!
Also, I got giggly during a very intense part of the novel when it probably wasn’t intended. Joey and Louise are out covering a marathon when a tornado hits. Like everyone else, they take shelter underground–specifically in the underground level of a parking garage. While waiting for the storm to pass, they start rounding the sexual bases to pass the time.
Is this what people do in the Midwest when they’ve got to wait out their regular tornado? Really??? (Of course not, I know better. It just makes me laugh.) Mind you, this is a probably-not-real regional behavior getting laughed at by a resident of Florida. We’re the state of tossing reptiles into fast food drive-thru windows and yet these two screwing around in a Jeep as a tornado passes over the area is what makes me laugh!
Okay, okay, I think I’m done. Solidly written with plenty of heart, Hearts Unbroken both stands on its own merits as an entertaining, educational novel and would make a great substitute for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which was written by a dude who sexually harassed a ton of women, btw).
Many access-points to this novel
There are a lot of entry-points to the storylines in Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken. I recommend this book especially for older teens, perhaps 9th or 10th grade and older.
The first entry-point for this book's storyline concerns tribal affiliation: Ms. Smith and the main protagonist, Louise, are both citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Throughout the story, Louise struggles with issues about whether or not to disclose when faced with casual and thoughtless racism by the people in her community.
At the story's beginning, Louise breaks up with her boyfriend after he ridicules the tribal name of his brother's fiancee. (Truth be told, I failed to see what had attracted her to this guy before, that she'd even need to break up with him.)
Sometimes it seems as though a scene "piles-on" more than one type of affront as though Ms. Smith wanted readers to be aware of every form that discrimination might take.
These scenes brought to mind other writers and books I'd read, where the author appeared to bring an ulterior objective, to inform and even persuade the reader on a subject of political weight.
Theater aficionados might appreciate the storylines around a student production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The school's drama teacher casts minority actors into three important roles and an opposition group quickly forms and demands a return to so-called "traditional" casting.
Soon the cast-members' families begin receiving threats and are even targeted by vandalism. This group also uses its clout to punish and remove school faculty who don't cave to its demands.
Louise's brother Hughie earns a leading role but the opportunity is tainted for him when he learns that Oz author L. Frank Baum advocated genocide of America's indigenous peoples.
One final entry point to this story concerns student journalism. Louise and her classmates in the school's journalism class report on unfolding developments. Because Hughie is part of the cast, Louise has to wrangle with issues of objectivity and disclosing her connection to the story.