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HEARTS UNBROKEN, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Review by Alexis, 18

Yeah, there are spoilers. I read the book, and I want to talk about it!



I don't think there is anything wrong with older teens and 'new adults' reading books for babies, kids and younger teens. Many middle aged people read YA. I do think if you rarely saw yourself in books, TV, movies when you were growing up, you don't stop looking. At least, that's true for me. I want to promote #ownvoices Indigenous books to help younger kids, but I am still trying to help me too!

This book floored me. It. Knocked. Me. Out.

There are Native #ownvoices books that I love fiercely (like FATTY LEGS, A True Story, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and THE MARROW THIEVES, by Cherie Dimaline.) Those aren't exactly my stories. But they are part of my heritage as an Indigenous young woman, a Seminole and American citizen. I find puzzle pieces or torn up parts of road maps in these books that help me find my way.

My life is not exactly like that of Louise Wolf, the MC in Cynthia Leitich Smith's great, new realistic YA novel, HEARTS UNBROKEN. She has two parents and a brother. Me and Mom have each other. Lou's more confident than I'll ever be in social situations and conflicts. Though this is a great thing for Native girls to see--I loved Lou's zingers! And she's much more beautiful and desirable than me. I am more of a 'fatty legs' type. Want to know why millennials killed belts, like I keep seeing people say on Twitter? Because we don't have waistlines! There again, it's terrific for Native girls to see a character who is desirable to several boys, and knows how to handle them.

This book made me think Cynthia Leitich Smith is the bossest of them all!

When the book starts, Kansan Lou is at her junior prom with the handsome, athletic, White Cam. His family is the country club type. And it would all be very glamourous (and almost is) if Cam's mother didn't express her disapproval at his brother's new fiancé who is Kickapoo. Cam:
Mom says Kickapoo sounds like a dog. Like peekapoo or cockapoo. Get it?
Lou reminds Cam that she is "One Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, live and in person, right here." Here I am in the first chapter, wondering if this is going to be an E. Lockhart kind of book, or THE LUXE series, with spoiled rich people, and a Muscogee MC hanging out, kicking their asses.

Here's the weird thing. I think if it had gone in that direction, a broader audience would have liked it better. I gather that from reading Goodreads' reviews. Yes, I did. Not before I read the book or after I read it the first time. But after I read it the second time. I had to know. It was predictable. But more on that later.

Please keep with me. I've got a lot to say.

The book pulls a fast switch when Lou dumps Cam. Here's where I started to get sucked in.

That evening I could tell from Cam's barrage of texts and voice mails that he had written off what had happened as just another spat. He made some half-hearted apologetic noises, blaming PMS for moodiness. He piled on the flattery, claimed our relationship had been "moving in the right direction," and declared that he wanted to "get back on track," which was his way of saying he still wanted sex.
Then, Smith writes: "The New Girl that Cam Ryan put on the social map was going to dump him."

More worries from me. That Lou was going to be a social outcast and mean girl target when she went back for senior year. No such thing. As a matter of fact, that's when her story really begins.

But before that, she and her family "road trip to Oklahoma, for the annual Mvskoke Fest in Okmulgee." The sights and smell are intimately familiar to me. She talks to her brother Hughie, who confesses that he's been bullied in school in the past (this will be important). On the car ride home, Lou and Hughie use their Mvskoke Language app. This is one of *many* contemporary references for teens that hit the target.

Back at home, big sis takes little brother clothes shopping, which he doesn't love. She makes sure he doesn't pick out outfits that are "bully bait."

She tells him: "I signed up for the school newspaper. That's a class, but it's kind of social too." He informs her: "I'm auditioning for the fall musical. It's The Wizard of Oz."  These decisions put them on their paths for the rest of the book, with all kinds of consequences.

Smith makes working on the school newspaper seem like the coolest thing in the world! I talked to my mom, Gail, about it. She said it "sounds like there are elements of the 'screwball comedies' involving journalists, like His Gal Friday." (I'll have to find a copy of it at the library.)

Especially, Mom said, because of the compelling relationship between Lou and Joey (Joseph A. Karouz), a half-Lebanese/half-Scottish guy with talent and ambition, who turns out to be Lou's competition and love interest. They admire each other's cleverness, but they both like to get the last word in and the best assignment. They're fun and they're equals.

Though, as soon as Joey is introduced, we come to an important theme in the book and Native real-life. Joey has no doubts about proudly declaring his mixed heritage to Lou. She considers doing the same, but keeps silent.

I could have said something then about being a Creek girl. It would've flowed from the conversation. Would've saved me a lot of heartache and drama, but I was too busy flirting.
I'm not totally convinced of that explanation. I think we're supposed to realize it's because she was badly burned by Cam. And, also, for many Native kids and teens who can "pass," there may be no good time to bring it up with non-Indigenous people. At the least, there will be awkwardness. At the worst, "funny" jokes about dog names or even threats of violence.

This is a place where Lou and I diverge. I grew up in the same community, same schools. My mom is a shelter social worker and an outspoken Seminole advocate. She's out there and known, so I've always been too. But just because you are not exactly like somebody (our group is very diverse) doesn't mean you can't learn from them. While reading the book, I saw Lou as a friend and teacher, and, yeah, a mirror, or one of those puzzle pieces (a BIG one) to help me put my identity together and understand how to function and survive in the world around me.

There is an incident when Lou and her mother visit an Indian Arts and Crafts Cooperation that will ring painfully true for light-skinned Indigenous girls.
A shopper, her coloring close to Mama's, paused at the shelves. "Learning anything?" At her smug tone, I tensed. The young Native woman wore a burgundy suit, sensible heels. Clearly she didn't see me for who I was. Mama strode over, put a protective hand on my shoulder...

I got pulled into the environment of the Hive--the school newspaper; digital, of course. The group is diverse, in a natural way. It's not fan casting, out of cultural context, by a majority writer who wants to check all the boxes and get an ally cookie. For example, we are introduced to

Nick. It wasn't just that he's one of two students who use a wheelchair. He's the campus DJ too. And we had French class together.
And
Karishma had run for Stu-Co President and lost, but I voted for her. Unlike a lot of girls, Karishma spoke her mind without apologizing first. 
Smith doesn't adhere to binaries, the way my generation doesn't. At one point in the book, Lou is hanging with her friends. The girls don't just write hard-hitting articles on bullying, but also...f/f fanfic!
Rebecca says, "Imagine if Dorothy and the Wicked Witch fell in love. Someone should write that script. "You should write it, Becs," Emily said, obviously cheered by the thought. I could imagine Becca's vision on stage. Someday soon, I prayed.
Lou does a feature about
the sophomore who'd made nearly $6,500 in the past two years running an online shop that sold Mod Podge custom comic shoes.
There are also hip adult mentors, who I recognize from the vivid descriptions--which ring true, rather than Smith trying too hard to be down with the teens. I don't know how she got it so pitch perfect.
Ms. Zimmerman, our school librarian, was fifty-something, dyed her grey hair fairy blue and was mostly unsuccessful at hiding her Winnie-the-Pooh tattoos.
It's so important all this freakiness rings true. This author is embracing our gen. She sees us and likes us, so maybe we can like us too. This book also really motivates me to become a writer. I don't know about a journalist. But it shows that if you have the guts to show it like it is, you can totally engage and motivate young readers and make a difference in your community.

Meanwhile. Hughie gets his dream. He wins the role of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. But controversy immediately ensues.  Let me set the scene, using Smith's words.
Mama looked up from her laptop at the kitchen table. "Get this," she said. "Yesterday, the theater teacher sent out a notice mentioning a more inclusive approach, and today there's a parent group objecting to the --and I quote-- 'color-blind casting' of the school musical. I've received an email addressed to "Dear Caring Parent,' asking me to write or call the assistance vice principal to complain.
Lou and her mother discuss it. Mama says, "Better to approach it as color-conscious casting. A color-blind approach can lead to whitewashing, white actors in blackface, yellowface, redface..." "Like Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily?" Lou asks, bringing in a memorable recent controversy.

Ok, I'm going to bring in some of those crappy online reviews here. This is not didactic. It's not over the top. It's what Native and POC teens deal with Every. Single. Day. And why do outsiders get all up in arms about whitewashing in movies, etc. but when WE write about it, it's just too, too much. This is OUR discussion. You are free to listen. I WANT you to learn from great books like this. But don't shut them out or put them down, because we're telling it like WE see it. If you *really* care about doing the right thing, not just impressing your friends, and getting 'likes' or clicks, then open your minds and hearts to books like HEARTS UNBROKEN!!!!

And this book is well-written; very, very well-written. It reads quickly, but with great complexity. You'll never be able to understand books from different cultures if you are looking for a single formula or narrative style.

Back to the school play controversy. The leads go to IPOC students, including a Black Dorothy. A group called Parents Against Revisionist Theater (PART) is formed. Lou wants to cover the story, despite her conflict of interest. PART's statements and attitudes are *so* spot on. Lou: "No matter what I tried, Ms. Ney stuck to her favorite catchphrases, "reverse racism" and "political correctness." If that's not hard-hitting enough:
Ms. Ney held her hands, clutched together, at her waist. "But casting a Black Dorothy Gale is an academic travesty. The character is supposed to be from Kansas.
Of course, the actress is from Kansas. Lou's family gets an anonymous letter in their mailbox. It could be from anyone.
There's no place like home.
Go back to where you came from. 
Very ironic for a Native family. But haters don't distinguish.

The Hive's coverage of the story offers opposing viewpoints from staff and students alike. The entire discussion is multilayered and complex. Smith knows exactly what she's doing.  Anyone who's been close to these conversations will recognize her mastery in laying it all out.
Everybody's talking about Chelsea playing Dorothy, but what about the fact that the two brown boys are playing farmhands and nonhuman creatures (the Scarecrow and the Tin Man). Why aren't there better roles for them?-- Victor Hernandez, senior.
The following quote is one of the most astute in the book. IPOC kids are never judged by the same standards as White kids and we don't get second chances.
Chelsea shouldn't have had to be so undeniably the hands-down best thespian. Just the best for the role of Dorothy.
The plot thickens when Hughie discovers that Oz creator Frank Baum wrote editorials supporting "total extermination" of Indigenous people after Wounded Knee. Hughie has a tough choice to make. Lou's friends don't understand why something someone did "a long time ago" matters today.

Lou explains a central Native truth: how children learn their Nation's history from family members, not books and schools.
I imagined that Lakota kids learned about Baum and Wounded Knee the way I learned about the Trail or Tears and Andrew Jackson. From their own community.
This may seem enough of a plot for some, but I like that Lou focuses her Hive features on other topical subjects, like bullying and slut shaming. Teens don't get to compartmentalize the messes we have to deal with in our lives. And, on some deeper level, all of these struggles against shame and oppression seem connected.

Lou extracts flashes of real life. She's a truth seeker.
I hate every asswipe who messes with me and everybody who laughs when they do. I hate how the Gym teachers look away, especially the ones that coach. --Wyatt, subject of bullying story.
A couple of the bullies  were insisting that they were the real victims...and Rebecca really was a slut and was "just wanting attention" and had "blown the whole fucking thing out of proportion. 
But Lou isn't always right. She can't bring herself to tell Joey's she's Creek. Things blow up between them when she makes the kind of dickish mistake that Cam made with her. PART keeps exploding too--until they almost become combustible. And Hughie agonizes over his decision concerning playing Baum's Tin Man.

Surprising things happen. Including a bonafide tornado. In Kansas.

I've given a lot a way--the book is still whirling in my head--but there's much more to find in this brilliant novel. Do Lou and Joey get together? What decision does Hughie make about he play and how does it affect others? Did Lou and Hughie's parents know about Baum's legacy? Who is sending the poisonous letters? What happens to that person? Do Lou and Cam ever talk out their differences--especially when he decides he wants her back? How does Lou finally tell Joey she's Muscogee? You want to know these things, right? You better read the book!

Lou has imprinted on me-- a necessity, with a near void of excellent Native #ownvoices for teens. I'll probably think about Lou and be influenced by her for months. In my own style. The way White boys take for granted, from an early age, pretending to be Superman or Harry Potter as a form of empowerment. I had so little of that as a kid, I started to identify with oppressors.

My favorite crossover moment is when Lou references "My poetic, soft-spoken cousin, who scribbles in journals and reveals stories in shadows." Yes, it's that Rain!

Let's promote this book, far and wide! It should be on 'Best of' and bestseller lists. It's one of my new all-time favorites. Were White readers so burned about the name change of the Wilder Award that they just couldn't listen to another one of their literary icons (Baum) being called out for what he truly was?

Thanks to Candlewick Press for publishing it, and for Cynthia Leitich Smith for writing it. We need many, many more like this! Those of us, like Lou, who can say: "I love who I am. I love my family, my friends, my Native Nation." And those kin who are fighting every day for acceptance and belonging where there is little to be found.





* Thanks to my mom, Gail, for talking to me about this book--giving me greater understanding and context. BIG thanks to my librarian, Ms. Ann, for going over my ten pages of scribbled notes and helping me make sense and order out of this review. Even when (I know) you were busy and sick, you were there and always patient. Thanks to Eduardo for telling me the review couldn't be too long, if the book meant this much to me. And thanks to all the great readers and supporters we are finding with this blog. I think we're making Indigo proud.





                                                                                                                                                       














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