Monday, August 5, 2013

#CBR5 Review #37: Burned by Ellen Hopkins

Written as a series of short, connecting poems, the young-adult novel Burned tells the tale of a young girl in a strictly religious and abusive household who is sent away for the summer after her father finds her in a compromising position. A few years back, I read another work by Ellen Hopkins, written in a similar style, called Impulse, and absolutely loved it. But did I love this one? Not as such. While Burned does bring up some interesting questions regarding faith and spirituality in a person, there were too many problems that I found in this novel that I just couldn’t get around, many of which involved that subject of religion which the novel was trying to address in the first place. But more on that in a minute:

The story of Burned focuses on 16 year-old Pattyn, the oldest of 7 daughters, all raised to be Mormon by an alcoholic, ex-army father, and detached mother who is often beaten by her husband. As Pattyn is growing up, she is finding herself to be questioning a woman’s role in the world, and wondering if there is more for her than simply getting married and spawning children. She is also experiencing sexual thoughts about some of the non-Church-going boys at school, and begins to wonder if these dreams she is experiencing are being put there by God or if it is wrong to even think like this. When one boy starts to take interest in her, however, she chooses to act on it and acquires her first boyfriend, Derek. Pattyn keeps her steamy relationship a secret due to fear of what her father will do; of course, Pattyn’s father eventually discovers them through word from people at Church (who heard about the couple from some of Pattyn’s old Mormon friends at school) and splits them up, which really does a number on Pattyn, but not so on Derek who appears to have been only interested in Pattyn for physical reasons. Pattyn is hurt and begins to act out, making her a bit of a pariah in the eyes of the Church and local Latter Day Saints community. From fear of stigmatization by other families, Pattyn’s father sends her away for the summer to live with her somewhat estranged Aunt Jeannette in the Nevada desert.

[Be aware of some spoilers in the remaining plot description to come]
After basically doing nothing but help raise all her younger sisters for her whole life at the hands of an uninvolved mother, Pattyn isn’t sure what to do with herself in the desert, so she chooses to work on the ranch with Jeannette, and learn about her Aunt and why she had become estranged from Pattyn’s father all those years ago. Stories of past abuses and anger lead Pattyn to hate her father even more than she already has, and she wonders if she really wants to go back home. But more than anything that may be stopping her from returning, Pattyn soon finds herself falling for a young college boy named Ethan who sometimes helps Jeanette on her ranch. Ethan becomes a serious boyfriend for Pattyn, and the two of them find themselves feeling deep and in, as Aunt J calls it, “forever love” with one another.

By the end of the summer, Pattyn and Ethan’s relationship has become more than they ever thought it would, and Pattyn continues to wonder where the meaning in her life should come from, if there this newfound, freer Pattyn really has a place for her family and religion in her life at all. But home beckons her, and after some serious altercations at home once she returns with a new attitude and outlook on life, Pattyn has to ask herself if she really can escape her past self and her family, regardless of the new life that she has started to forge for herself. And as such, at the end of the novel we are left with a girl who is broken, floating, and deciding between two options for herself: does she try to get revenge for the wrongs that have been done to her and the things she has lost? Or does she end all the pain and uncertainty in her life once and for all? We never really find out the answer, but are left to decide on our own what she does (or doesn’t do). It’s quite haunting in a way, leaving the reader to determine the action she takes, especially considering the two dark paths that she is choosing between.

In addition to having a serious and compelling means of ending the novel, Burned also finds some strength in the fact that a number of the poems used to tell the stories are simply beautiful. However, I personally feel like they would be beautiful as stand-alones, and that telling a narrative as such in this manner becomes a bit gimmicky at times. This was especially noticeable to me when the physical format and layout of the poem itself was set up in a strange way in order to convey the subject of the poem as well. Spreading out all the words to make a firework shape while the characters watch fireworks? Stuff like that made me roll my eyes a little, but I found this to be the same in Hopkins’ other novel that I read as well (and mentioned earlier). However, the means in which the story was told didn’t really take away from the ease of reading, and in fact made it easy to pick up again once you put it down or had to come back to it at some point.

But these little things that Burned has going for it doesn’t make up for a lot of the issues that I found in the novel. Maybe some of them are just personal, or because I’ve been finding myself increasingly detached from the emotions in young-adult novels as of late (what is wrong with me? I’ve loved them for so long!) but the whole thing is just… too much on either side of the coin for my liking? At some points there is so much lovey-dovey stuff that it becomes sappy and juvenile ("Forever love"? Really?). But then at other moments it is so gritty and dark that it is almost overkill. Yes, I know some people’s lives really are unthinkably heartbreaking and difficult, but the flip-flopping of emotions was really tiring. Just like the flip-flopping of Pattyn’s character: she slid back and forth between “new” and “old” Pattyn so quickly that it almost gave me whiplash. The changes that occurred in her were incredibly blunt and didn’t really have all that long to process or become ingrained in her. I just found it to be a little jarring.

Other problems came in the form of characterizations. First of all, Ethan is basically presented as perfect and with no flaws at all. Maybe it’s just Pattyn’s young interpretation of this great guy, or maybe it’s the writing of the male Mary-Sue boyfriend (a Gary-Stu?). Pattyn herself has some of these qualities at all, but more than being perfect, it’s more that she is suffering from Bella Swan (and/or special snowflake) syndrome: she doesn’t think she is pretty or special at all, but really she is totally beautiful and wonderful and finds that she is a true light upon the world once the most gorgeous guy ever opens her eyes to it. And what about Pattyn’s father? Well he is totally opposite to Ethan and is presented with essentially no redemptive qualities at all. Then there are the stereotypes of the catty, Church snobs who tell their pastors about what other girls are doing, the randy young teenagers who have no religion at all at school. And of course, Aunt Jeanette is the typical, crusty but loving old ranch-gal. I don’t know, I just found nothing special about these characters at all, and if there is nothing compelling or complicated about them like real humans are, I lose a lot of interest.

But more than anything, the very subject that the novel raised questions about was the biggest and most irksome thing to me: the portrayal and question or religion in a person’s life. This is a particularly interesting subject to me, so my interest in the book was somewhat peaked by this, but the portrayal of the Mormon, Latter Day Saints religion was very black and white. As in, you are either ridiculously strict (which, yes, I am aware that they are), or not at all. It was almost as though the novel was saying that you are either very religious or not, and can’t be in-between. The only shade of grey that ever came up was in Aunt Jeanette, who walked away from the Mormon Church but still presented some ideas about God having a life for all of us in the world. But she certainly didn’t go to church, and only presented these ideas when asked an opinion of it: I guess we’d say she is agnostic? It’s hard to say. In any case, those in the Mormon religion are painted in a very negative and generalized way in Burned. It was as though the novel was saying that the majority of people in that religion look down on those who are not Mormon, that they are abusive and restrictive of women’s rights, and aren’t truly willing to help those in need or who make mistakes in their lives. I guess it just seemed like spirituality was being presented as an either-or, and I truly don’t believe that it is that way. Perhaps that’s just coming back to my own thoughts about spirituality and religion lately (they are not strictly-speaking the same thing), but I found the representations of beliefs to be very divisive into two communities that apparently couldn’t mix.

So with all of that lengthy stuff taken into consideration, I suppose Burned is an easy and quick read, but with a melodramatic story and a lot of little things that made my scowl. I couldn’t bring myself to like it, though I did want to and did try. After reading Ellen Hopkins’ fantastic Impulse, I guess my hopes were just a little high.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

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