I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange. After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland. So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane. Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, Mosquitoland is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.
Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.
It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.
Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.
And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.
As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.
For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.
Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.
If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.
The running motto of Mosquitoland is "Mim is not okay," and she really isn't. She's a hot mess, if I'm being perfectly honest. The girl has had a rough life, one that many teens her age have to deal with: she's watched her family crumble and it, ultimately, led to her parents divorcing, her dad remarrying a month later and moving from Ohio to Mississippi. So when Mim learns her mom is sick, she steals her stepmom's tin can filled with $800 and purchases a Greyhound ticket. Along the way, she runs into an interesting and strange cast of characters that leave significant impressions on Mim.
The strongest part of Mosquitoland, and the part that immediately impressed me, was the writing style and Mim's voice. The novel is narrated two ways: What's actually happening to Mim on her trip and diary entries that form a letter to a character named Iz. The latter tells of her life prior to the move and allows the reader to see what happened to her family. This coupled with a few flashbacks from Mim from time to time, paints a picture of the life she desperately misses with her mom. She also gives a List of Reasons for why she is embarking on the journey in the first place. Many of them range from seemingly pointless (her "war paint"--more on that later) to the obvious (her mom may be dying). The two narrations never felt jarring and worked well to compliment each other. Together they pieced together Mim's life without resorting to the dreaded info-dumping that commonly plagues many YA novels.
Mim is also very pretentious, in my opinion, but not annoyingly so like a John Green novel. Simply put, she has a very realistic and fresh voice. She's witty, and while she doesn't always make the best decisions--because let's be honest, her entire trip to Ohio was probably a bad idea in hindsight--she learns and grows a lot.
But back to the writing because I just realized I completely dropped that teaser and moved on. (See, I told you I'm terrible at this Reviewing Contemporaries thing.) The best thing I could say about Mosquitoland in this regard is that I just wanted to quote it for days. Beautiful, beautiful writing galore.
"I swear, the older I get, the more I value bad examples over the good ones. It's a good thing, too, because most people are egotistical, neurotic, self-absorbed peons, insistent on wearing near-sighted glasses in a far-sighted world. And it's this exact sort of myopic ignorance that has led to my groundbreaking new theory. I call it Mim's Theorem of Monkey See Monkey Don't, and what it boils down to is this: it is my belief that there are some people whose sole purpose of existence is to show the rest of us how not to act."
So those are some things I loved about Mosquitoland and because this is a review, regardless of its Blog Tour Status, I must mention to you some of the negatives and possibly confusing qualities of the novel. There's a little controversy surrounding the trailer.
Mim has this thing she does when things gets really rough: she takes out a tube of lipstick (her "war paint") and paints her face in the tradition of Native Americans, mostly in secret and never in public on purpose. Now, to be fair, Mim is partly Native American. I say "partly" because her mom's mom is part Cherokee. Mim herself acknowledges that this makes her one-sixtieth Cherokee, but it never stops her from continuing to play up the Native American whenever she feels like it. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that Mim was not raised knowing much of anything about her Native American heritage.
"But even today, there are times--most notably when I wear my war paint--when I really feel that Cherokee blog coursing through my veins, no matter its percentage of purity. So from whatever minutia of my heart that pumps authentic Cherokee blood, I pass this phrase along to you: have a vision, unclouded by fear."
So from what I gather, her "war paint" is a way for her to feel strong in situations that are tough. What's even more interesting, for lack of a proper word, is that she does seem to know this is wrong and potentially problematic:
"I wonder: What would it be like if she walked in the room right now? If she found me painting my face life some politically incorrect Cherokee chieftess? What would I tell her? The truth, I hope. That in my longing for originality and relational honesty and a hundred other I-don't-know-whats, this action, while strange and socially awkward, makes more sense that just about anything else in the world. And even though it's cryptic and more than a little odd, sometimes cryptic and odd are better than lying down for the Man. Maybe I would tell her how the war paint helped get me through a time when I felt like no one else cared about what I wanted, or who I was. Maybe I could muster the courage to speak those words so few people are able to say: I don't know why I do the things I do. It's like that sometimes."
This might not be an adequate explanation for some readers, and I don't blame them. It's puzzling and I still don't think I get why she chose to use the lipstick as war paint of all things (and a good deal of me would have preferred that she didn't do that at all). However, it makes me question if that was the point. Did Arnold include this to make us question Mim and her actions?
I will now take you back to more good from Mosquitoland: We also have a fascinating cast of characters, none of which are completely good or evil: Walt, a teen boy with Down Syndrome; Beck, and older college boy who Mim crushes on; Kathy, Mim's stepmother who Mim chooses to label as The Bad Guy; and Mim's Dad who believes she is mentally ill. They all serve purposes that are woven into Mim's journey to Ohio, allowing Arnold to touch on a variety of topics such as mental illness, personal accountability and even rape.
There's a lot of that goes on in Mosquitoland and it's pretty much impossible for me to go into it all without writing my own book, and I've already written so much more about it than I thought I had in me, so I'll just leave you with this: Read it for yourself. It's certainly readable, enjoyable and will definitely make you question a multitude of things. It's deep and layered, one of those books that might make you consider reading it a second time to pick up on the things you missed the first time around. But there's one thing I do know: I'll be watching David Arnold for future books (in a totally non-stalkerish way, I assure you) and you should, too.