Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Hill’

Book Review – Americus

AmericusAmericus by M.K. Reed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hey, it’s July 4th! Perfect timing for this quintessentially American story about book banning!

Americus tells the story of Neil Barton, a misunderstood fourteen-year-old book nerd living an awkward existence in Americus, a small town somewhere in Middle America. His closest relationships are with Danny, the classmate who got him into reading fantasy, especially the (fictional) Apathea Ravenchilde series; and Charlotte, the friendly youth services librarian at his local library — a fellow Apathea fan. Otherwise, Neil doesn’t interact with his peers unless they are physically threatening him; and he can’t connect with his overwhelmed (but well-meaning) mom.

After middle school graduation, things just get more awkward and lonely for Neil. Nancy Burns, Danny’s fundamentalist Christian mom, catches her son reading the latest Apathea book, and, terrified that her son is being corrupted by a book she considers Satanist and obscene, Nancy sets about making Neil’s life terrible. First, she sends Danny away to a religious summer camp, followed by military school. Then, she starts a campaign to ban the Apathea books from the library.

In setting up the dichotomy between small-town idiocy and alternatives, the comic includes positive portrayals of: librarians, vegans, punks, fantasy novels, sci-fi geeks, metal heads, brunettes (I’m not kidding — being brunette in this story implies outsider which implies good guy…also, there are zero non-white characters from what I can tell), single mothers, homosexuals, people who accept homosexuality, and people named Charlotte. On those merits, I enjoyed the story and would recommend it. Many of Neil’s experiences — a first job as a library page, parents and teachers who endlessly say high school are the best years of your life, the magic moment when a more experienced peer clues you into the music you should have been listening to all along — ring perfectly true to me. Yet, overall, the story is too simplistic and lacks the subtlety and nuance that would make it a home run.

Americus doesn’t quite successfully satirize the excessive patriotism, Christian moralizing, and homophobia of the place it portrays. Do such small towns really exist outside of fiction? Some of the zings at Americanism — the big-box stores, minimum-wage jobs, cynical reminders that the best Americus’ youngsters can hope for is getting out of their town — work for what they are, potshots at broad targets. But depth is lacking. Nancy, frankly, comes across as a lunatic, with her rants about witches and protecting her children’s souls. I never believed she had a hope of winning the library board to her side. The charges of obscenity in the Apathea books never had any credibility, either.

Sadly, Nancy exists as a plot device, a bad guy for the good guy characters to reject; her actions and motives never make sense on their own terms. She says she loves her children, but unlike, say Reverend Shaw of the original Footloose movie, neither the audience nor her kids believe it. In fact, Nancy’s intense Christianity appears to have no effect at all on her children, who all reject her positions with (apparently) no internal struggle or guilt. The religious camp where Danny is sent, while not fun, has little to no effect on him, either. This was hard to swallow. In reality, at least some kids raised under this influence buy in and accept their parents’ and teachers’ concept of morality; others accept pieces of it, resist, struggle with it, question, and keep struggling. Very few reject it outright and create an independent worldview, especially not as preteens.

Overall, sexuality is handled oddly in Americus. Danny reveals early in the story that he is gay; we assume that this plays a large role in his mother’s actions and yet, it is never directly addressed again. A coda shows Danny in military school with a classmate he’s shared the Apathea books with; it’s implied that these two boys are a couple and doing more than talking literature in their bunks — just the opposite of what Nancy hoped military school would do for her son. Yet, because no other romantic relationship is handled with the same level of wink-wink-nudge-nudge subtext, we’re left wondering if there isn’t something unspeakable about homosexuality after all. The other good guy characters (Neil, Charlotte, and Neil’s mom) are neatly paired off in hetero relationships at the end.

And, perhaps paradoxically, with its anti-book-burning message, in the end I found the book patriotic. Notwithstanding Nancy’s accusation that libraries are atheistic communist institutions, the ultimate victory of the good guy characters here rests on “separation of church and state” and “freedom” — tenets of Americanism that patriots believe can (and does) only exist in the American system. At the end, we can comfortably believe that, while a few Nancies are out there, with the vigilance of Neils and Charlottes, everything is working as it should.

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