Meg Medina's name on a book is a guarantee that I will be reading that book sooner rather than later. I've been highly anticipating the release of Burn Baby Burn from the moment I heard about it and was so excited to get to read an advanced copy. I have been pondering how to articulate why this book is so special and particularly brilliant and not just gush. Hopefully I will attain more of the latter here.
The spring and summer of New York City 1977 was a hard time to be a girl graduating from high school eager to experience life. The city was on the edge of disaster: racial tensions were high, there were a series of arsons, a blackout that resulted in looting, and a serial killer calling himself Son of Sam who shot young women and their dates. Nora Lopez is a senior in high school and her life at home is no safer than she feels on the streets of New York. Her brother is becoming increasingly violent and angry. Her mother just makes excuses for him. Nora takes joy where she can. She loves dancing, hanging out with her best friend, and there is a cute boy at work who is into her as much as she is in. But how can she enjoy her present and plan for the future when danger is around every corner: both from unknown shadows and her very own family.
They went to the movies and found out that the city isn't huge at all. In fact, it can shrink down to the size of a gun barrel, just like that.
Burn Baby Burn was not the easiest book to read. Medina's subtle genius in this book is how suffocated she makes the reader feel. Nora's life is oppressed. She lives every day in fear. The prose perfectly captures the tone and feel of NY during the time period. Nora lives near where many of the shooting took place. She is a young woman who enjoys hanging out with a boy. Like most of the victims, she has long dark hair. The atmosphere of a city under siege is palpable on every single page. This is reflected by Nora's home life which is also closing in on her. Through a masterful use of imagery, simple language, and direct storytelling, Medina put me in Nora's place and I felt every moment of her terror, uncertainty, and the feeling that her life was caving in on her. This is not a creepy book in the sense that it is a thriller. It is creepy simply by being so REAL. It is also a book with hope that demonstrates the power of community and the importance of owning your life.
Every rule I know is gone, and we're in chaos. There are no rules for how a family should work. No rules for how far loyalty should reach...No limits on how people ruin one another's lives or how we blame one another for our pain.
Nora's personal journey is intrinsically linked to the events going on in the wider community. This is true of any individual journey, yet not all authors are able to pull this off as flawlessly as Medina does here. Nora's home life is a microcosm of the chaos playing out in the city, but it is also a part of that chaos. Nora behaves through much of this book as typical abuse victims do. She makes a lot of excuses, yearns for escape, lies to cover up what is going on, feels an immense shame, and pushes away those closest to her in order to hide. For someone so young Nora has a lot on her shoulders. Her mother expects her to fix so many of their problems and is often verbally abusive. Nora's brother, Hector, is violent and she knows he's on the brink of ruining his own life and possibly bringing hers down with it. Yet she keeps covering up for him and hiding him from consequences. Some of that is motivated by selfishness. She doesn't want to be the sister of a criminal, addict, and bully. She doesn't want the world to see how messed up her life is. As the events in the city reach a climax, so do the events in Nora's own life and how she takes control of her life and what she wants from it makes for a wonderful heart rending journey. I like how Medina didn't try to fix everything and tie it all up neatly. There are deep wounds in Nora and her relationships that will take time to heal and some that never will, but Nora had found courage and strength and realized that you can build a family outside of the one you were born into. She learned it's okay to ask for help.
Is it crazy to be disappointed by a monster? He's nothing like what we imagined...I wonder if everything we fear is the same way as unmasking Son of Sam. Maybe the things that scare us seem more powerful than they truly are when we keep them secret.
Relationships and the power of community play important roles in this book as well. It's easy to look at New York of 1977 and think that it was populated by a different sort of people than populate the city now. It's so different after all. But that's not true. Nora has an amazing amount of support. One of the difficult parts of reading her story is knowing this and wishing she would realize it sooner. Her best friend Kathleen loves Nora and Kathleen's parents are wonderful welcoming people. Nora's boss, Sal, adores her and attempts to help her any way he can. His colorful encouragement, gentle rebukes, and care for her safety give Nora a sense of home every day. Then there is Pablo, the new boy at work who Nora falls for. His calm reassuring presence and his unwillingness to give up on her make him one of my favorite YA love interests of all time. I also like how he backed off when she told him to, but never stopped caring from a distance. And I really appreciate that he isn't the one who saves her. He gives her support. He shows her that he is steady. He doesn't flinch from the ugliness of her life. There are enough people in Nora's life who do this on some level that when she finds the courage to save herself, she has a group of people ready to have her back. It's a beautiful demonstration of the importance of community and dangers of isolation.
I would recommend this to anyone. It's one of those books that I'm going to be pushing at everyone who reads and you will probably be tired of hearing about it by the time the year is over.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Candlewick Press, via NetGalley. Burn Baby Burn is on sale March 8.