Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Digressions: Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

Note: I wrote this entire post after having listened to the audiobook of Seeing Red. I did not realize  (until I double checked the publication dates) that the print version was published in 2013, rendering the entire discussion moot for our 2015 Mock Newbery purposes. 

As it turns out, the novel was ignored by all of the YMA committees. It did receive a starred review in Booklist, but it was otherwise a blip on the literary radar. Nevertheless, Recorded Books chose to record an audiobook version of it. I assume that's due to the author's National Book Award winner status, but really, who knows? I've been on this committee for six months now, and while some of the book-to-audiobook choices are obvious, some are still mystifying. And it's only getting weirder as it becomes cheaper for audio publishers to put out digital-only titles. Onward!


In a lengthy author's note at the end of Seeing Red, Kathryn Erskine explains (among other things) the reasoning behind her protagonist's name:

"Finally, Red’s last name is Porter for two reasons. Pullman Porters
were early leaders in the civil rights movement, successfully creating
a union and organizing events leading up to and including the March
on Washington in 1963. I wanted to pay tribute to them. Also, a
porter is a person who carries burdens and, symbolically, all of us are
like Red, carrying the burden of our history and the responsibility for
our current society." 


A noble sentiment, to be sure. But man, is that a heavy burden (no pun intended) for one kid to carry, and that kind of front-loaded symbolism is my biggest issue with this novel.

To back up... Red Porter is living in a small town in Virginia in the early 1970's. There are racial tensions in his town, but Red's family has never, of course, perpetrated any racial injustice. His recently deceased father was a kind of saintly Atticus Finch figure, and the whole family is having trouble adjusting - financially and emotionally - in the wake of that unexpected death. Of course, history is not always what it seems, and Red is going to have to adjust his view of his family and his town many times before he grows into his new status as the "man of the house."

There's also a young, progressive anti-war teacher; a Klan-like organization; an idealistic lawyer; a simple-but-wise man; an old alcoholic who beats his kids; and a strong black woman. There is, in short, a whole lot of history packed into this novel (which weighs in at a hefty 352 pages). The four page author's note makes it explicit that Seeing Red is Erskine's attempt to deal with some of the injustices she saw while growing up. Again, that's a worthy goal! But it doesn't make for an effective novel. The didacticism weighs down the plot, and the transparent symbolism of the characters makes this feel more like allegory than realistic fiction. 

Seeing Red is not a complete failure, of course. Erskine effectively evokes the atmosphere of a small town in the seventies (I lived in one, for a few years anyway). Her prose is accomplished as well (as can be expected from a National Book Award winner).

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