Tag Archives: race/racism

SVH #94: Are We in Love?

26 May

areweinlove

Estimated Elapsed Time: 3-4 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Steven Wakefield and Cheryl Thomas have been spending a lot of time together.  They get along well and Steven has been teaching Cheryl to drive (stick).  They notice that everyone seems to think they’re dating, and they aren’t sure how they feel about it.  Everyone has an opinion about an interracial relationship, and they aren’t shy about them.  Most of these opinions are super, super racist, by the way.

One night, Steven and Cheryl go to a restaurant for a bite and they’re hassled by some skinheads.  It shakes them both up, and after they leave, they embrace on the beach and then end up kissing.  Because of this, or because they feel like they have something to prove, the two start dating.  It’s clear from the start that neither one is into the other, though.  Both agonize over how to deal with this privately, because they want to prove that people of different races can be attracted to each other.

This drags on for over 150 pages.  They continue to date, mostly to prove a point, while also dealing with casual racism and ignorance at every turn.  Jessica tries to be super supportive because she loves the idea of her brother being a trailblazer, but it just makes everyone feel even more awkward.

It isn’t until the wedding of Cheryl’s father and Annie’s mother that Cheryl finally comes clean to Steven by making her toast to her parents all about love and standing up for it or something.  The point is, she’s just not into him.  They laugh it off, embrace, and decide to just be friends.  Everyone celebrates the marriage of Walter and Mrs. Whitman! Hooray!

The B-Plot involves Jessica baking the wedding cake for the wedding.  Shenanigans ensue.  I can’t bring myself to care.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Steven takes Cheryl to the Crooked Canyon Cafe, which has Mexican food and burgers.
  • Marpa Heights is a town near Sweet Valley, though this is the first we as readers have heard of it.
  • Apparently Steven has friends, because they all go with him to the Beach Disco one night, including token black friend Martin Bell
  • Jess and Liz talk about their future weddings. Liz would want Enid, Penny, Olivia, and Jessica to be bridesmaids, and they’d wear cornflower-blue dresses.  She thinks Todd would pick his dad to be his best man (WHAT?) and Winston, Ken, and Aaron would be ushers.  WHAT IS THIS?
  • Andrea Slade and Nicholas Morrow have broken up.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “‘Look, all I’m saying is that Steven could have any girl in Sweet Valley,’ Lila defended herself. ‘Cheryl’s fine for a friend, but I think it’s kind of odd that he’d like her that way.'” (19)
  • “She looked over at Steven, feeling something like awe. My big brother is half of the very first interracial couple at Sweet Valley High!” (20) [blogger’s note: LOL WHAT?]
  • “Why is everybody so racist?” (51)
  • “She and Steven had needed to hug, to kiss. Cheryl’s eyes stung with tears. They had come together, briefly, for the right reason. But they had stayed together for the wrong one.” (130)

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

This is the last of the regular series books.  After this, it’s all mini-series, all the time.  I’m excited for the shake-up, but this book as the conclusion to the traditional run of the series is TERRIBLE.

The problems here are myriad, but one that sticks out is that the book seems to have taken the issues of race, racism, and identity in the last book and run with them.  What was problematic (and it was super, super problematic) in the last book is off the charts bizarre here.  While readers are supposed to recognize the blatant displays of racism on the pages here, where characters talk about race in a blatant, horrible way, there’s also a lot of weird, underlying racism intrinsic to the story.

Both Steven and Cheryl think a lot about the fact that they’ve never dated someone of the other race, and they worry that it’s because they can’t be attracted to someone of the other race.  This is a theme revisited again and again by multiple characters in the book, and it is weird and oddly tone-deaf, considering the fact that the book culminates in the wedding of Walter Thomas and Mrs. Whitman, people of different races.

But also worrying is the fact that everyone keeps talking about the fact that Steven and Cheryl will be the first interracial couple at Sweet Valley High (nevermind the fact that they won’t actually appear at SVH because Steven is [allegedly] in college).

I’m sorry, but what?  Haven’t we dealt with this before?  There are at least three other coupes at SVH who are interracial.  This issue has been dealt with before.  I read this as the (presumably white) writers acknowledging their own bias in that a white person dating a black person is, in some way, a “bigger deal” than a white person dating someone who is Hispanic or Asian or whatever.  Which is totally FUCKED.

Okay, enough with the race stuff, SVH.  This is starting to really bother me.

 

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SVH #93: Stepsisters

23 May

stepsisters

Estimated Elapsed Time: 4 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Annie Whitman’s mom has been spending a lot of time in New York as part of her work as a fashion model (strictly catalog work, Annie is quick to tell her friends), and when she comes back from her latest month-long trip (leaving Annie alone, I guess?), she tells her that she’s been seeing a man in New York–a photographer named Walter Thomas, and the two of them are getting married! Walter has a daughter about Annie’s age named Cheryl, and the two of them will be moving to Sweet Valley.  Oh, and they’re black.  Annie is stunned but works hard to not be prejudiced about the fact that her new family will look different from her.  Whatever, I hate this book already.

In the span of like a day of this news, Annie’s mom buys the house next door to the Wakefield twins, and within the week, the new family is moving in, Walter and Cheryl already in tow.  The twins are excited about the new neighbors and are totally cool about Cheryl.  They help the girls unpack and notice that things between Annie and Cheryl are already tense, despite the fact that it’s clear Annie is trying as hard as she can to make Cheryl comfortable.  The problem is, Annie’s so concerned with not being a racist that she ends up being super, super racist, obsessing over color and inviting a bunch of students of color to the party she throws in Cheryl’s honor even though she’s not good friends with them.  She also doesn’t tell anyone that Cheryl is black before they meet her, making the situation even weirder.

Annie keeps trying to include Cheryl in her life, but everything keeps going wrong.  She encourages her to join Pi Beta Alpha and go to football games, even though neither is Cheryl’s scene. The two continue to resent one another but neither one is willing to admit it out loud.  At a pool party at Suzanne Hanlon’s house, Cheryl makes a little speech thanking the PBAs for considering her for membership, but then declines to even pledge.  She also accuses Annie of trying to make her fit in by turning her white.

Eventually, the two figure out a way to talk to one another, but it takes a trip to the hospital to do so.  Annie’s mother had appendicitis–but she’s fine now.  The girls decide to allow them to be themselves or something, and all is well with the world.  Cheryl also starts flirting pretty seriously with Steven Wakefield.

Oh, and Annie and Tony Esteban get back together.  YAWN.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Cheryl’s friends spend their summers at Blue Water, a place for musicians
  • Cheryl is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian
  • Rhomboid is a new up-and-coming band.  The name is literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
  • Annie throws a party for Cheryl at their house the DAY AFTER they move in.  Jesus, that’s fast.
  • Apparently Annie is quite the cook?

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Annie thought carefully about the question. She was friends with Patsy Gilbert and Andy Jenkins, who were black, and Rosa Jameson and Manuel Lopez, who were Hispanic, and she could honestly say that she didn’t think about their skin colors or ethnic backgrounds any more than she did about, say, Jessica and Elizabeth’s English and Swedish background.” (13) [Blogger’s note: Are you fucking kidding me?]
  • “‘You actually have sororities in high school here?’ Cheryl asked, sounding surprised. ‘Sweet Valley sounds like something out of a 1950’s beach-party movie–football, cheerleaders, sororities, surfing. I suppose you have a burger joint, too?'” (75)
  • “‘And there’s something else I wanted to ask you about,’ Cheryl went on, looking a little troubled. ‘What gives with all these black, Asian, and Hispanic kids here? I don’t think I’ve seen this many people of color since I got to Sweet Valley, and certainly not in place.'” (86)

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

Guys, this book is fucked.  Like, seriously, seriously fucked.  It’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure that the underlying message of the book is that skin color doesn’t matter and that people who worry about whether or not it does are doing the real anti-racist work, but the message is so, so wrong and so convoluted it’s hard to tell.  Annie’s obsession (and seriously, she is OBSESSED) with the fact that Cheryl is black is so hard to read, because I think we’re supposed to identify with Annie?  We’re supposed to think that because she’s worrying about it, it means she’s not racist?  When the reality is that she comes off as more racist than anyone else, even Suzanne Hanlon, who is clearly a racist little twat?

There were so many moments when I laughed out loud because I was completely incredulous about what was being said or done in the book.  Take this quote, for instance:

‘I’m sure you have less to worry about than you think,’ Elizabeth suggested. ‘Maybe you should talk to Patty or Tracy Gilbert, or maybe Andy Jenkins. I know Andy did have that trouble with Charlie Cashman, but aside from that I don’t think he or any of the other black kids have had much reason to feel uncomfortable at Sweet Valley High.’ (40)

She’s talking about that time that Andy Jenkins was jumped by five guys, punched in the stomach by his best friend, and was hospitalized.  You know, “that trouble” where Andy was the victim of racialized violence.  But apart from that, students of color at Sweet Valley don’t worry about racism in their high school or their town!

Except for when Rosa Jameson lied about her ethnic heritage because she was afraid that students wouldn’t accept her.  And when Sandy Bacon dealt with comments about the fact that her boyfriend, Manuel Lopez, was Hispanic and she was white.  Except for those incidents.

Also, how completely fucked is it that Liz is speaking on behalf of students of color to begin with?  YOU ARE THE PROBLEM, LIZ.

Ugh, I just can’t.

 

SVH Sweet Valley Saga #2: The Wakefield Legacy: The Untold Story

28 Apr

wakefieldlegacy

As if the maternal family tree of the Wakefield twins wasn’t wacky (read: awful) enough, readers are treated to the paternal family tree in this one.  Blech.

Summary/Overview:

Theodore Wakefield, 1866

Theodore is the second son tothe Earl of (you guessed it) Wakefield, England.  When his older brother dies in a terrible horse accident, his father insists that Theodore take over his roles and marry his brother’s fiance.  Theodore refuses, and leaves home to board a ship to America. Onboard, he meets Alice Larsen, after he saves her from a near death by drowning.  The two are separated when they reach land, and Theodore joins up with a circus.

There, he meets a young half-Indian woman (this is seriously how she’s described the moment she appears on the page) named Dancing Wind.  Dancing Wind is something like 16, and Theodore is definitely in his mid-to-late 30s, so this is all kinds of super creepy.  The book glosses right over, that, though!  One night at the circus, Theodore meets a young blond girl named Jessamyn who is the spitting image of his long-lost love, Alice Larsen! He is distracted with thoughts of her all through the show.  Distraught, Dancing Wind attempts a dangerous move during her routine and falls from the air.  The net breaks, injuring her badly.  Theodore realizes he loves her, and they end up married in Nebraska.

Four years later, Dancing Wind gives birth to twins: Sarah and James, and then DIES.  Theodore continues to raise the twins by himself, eventually transporting them to California.

James and Sarah Wakefield, 1905

Now settled in Vista California and rich off the wine business Theodore started, James and Sarah are 16 and inhabit many of the same characteristics SVH readers are comfortable reading about when it comes to twins.  Sarah falls for one of her father’s employees, a boy in her class named Edward Brooke.  When she brings him to the Manor (this is what they call their estate, y’all) to formally introduce him to Theodore, though, she’s shocked when her father is kind of a douche to him.  He tells her that Edward isn’t good enough (read: rich enough) and she’d be better off with some dude named George.  Sarah decides to keep seeing Edward anyway.

When an influenza epidemic runs through the country, James dies.  Now that Sarah is all Theodore has left, she feels guilty about the fact that she’s been lying to him.  Doesn’t matter: Theodore reads her journal while she’s at school, discovers her secret, and tells her she can stop seeing Edward or she can leave.  So she leaves, and she and Edward escape to San Francisco.  OF COURSE THEY ARRIVE ON THE DAY OF AN EARTHQUAKE.  Trapped in their hotel room, the two perform their own marriage ceremony, declare it “legal enough,” and consummate the “marriage.”

After they are rescued, Edward goes back into the hotel to help save others, and, of course, dies.  Sarah returns home to her father, but their happy reunion is sullied when she realizes she’s pregnant.  Her father sends her away for the duration of the pregnancy.  After she gives birth to a healthy boy named Edward (Teddy), her father tells her he will return for her–and only her.  Sarah refuses and decides to live on her own with Teddy.  Afraid of causing a scandal or upsetting her son, she decides not to tell him he was conceived out of wedlock and pretends to be his aunt.  This will end well.

Ted, 1924

Ted is working as a waiter in a jazz club and tells his “aunt” that he doesn’t want to go to college.  She disagrees, and the two fight about it.  When she gets a letter with news that her father has died, Ted is confused, because he’s always been told his grandfather died years ago.  This is when the whole story comes tumbling out.

Confused, Ted ends up fleeing his house for college in Ohio.  He does well at school, and on a break one year, he goes home with his friend Harry Watson.  There, he meets Harry’s twin sisters, Samantha and Amanda.  This section is literally a retelling of what we already heard in the first saga.  Since it bored me then, I’m skipping it now.

After that whole fiasco, Ted travels west to discover his family’s roots.  He tracks down his grandmother’s tribe and it is there he meets the super blond Julia Marks, a reporter working a story about government corruption relating to the tribe.  The two fall in love despite the fact that he’s been burned before and is a bastard, and it isn’t long before they’re married and living in Washington.  They have a son together, named Robert.

Julia dies in the Hindenburg explosion (I’m not joking).

Robert, 1943

Robert joins the military at 16 after lying about his age.  He ends up working in communications and communicates with a POW who goes by the code name of Pacific Star.  They communicate for months before finally liberating the camp and meeting.  Pacific Star is Hannah Weiss, and the two end up married and settling in Sweet Valley, California.

Hannah gives birth to Ned.  I can’t be bothered to care.

Ned, late 1960s (way to fudge the numbers, SVH ghostwriter)

Ned and his cousin Rachel are total hippies, working to set the Man straight and fight the good fight.  At college, Rachel introduces Ned to her friend Becky, who seems like she sucks, but he sort of falls for her after she starts calling herself Rainbow.  The two date, and then Rachel finds out that Becky’s using Ned for help studying (?) so she can become a lawyer.  Whatever.  Her true colors finally come out after an arrest at a protest, and Ned breaks off their relationship.

His senior year, he rescues a blond woman who ends up being Alice Roberts.  Even though the two have a connection, Alice is set to marry a Patman.  Heartbroken, Ned mopes around until Alice shows up at his door, still wearing the wedding dress she was supposed to marry another man in.  Okie dokie.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Someone did a little research and actually got the date of the Great San Francisco Earthquake (4/18/1906) right.  Kudos.
  • Theodore’s father is either named George or Theodore, depending on whether or not you consult the family tree or the book’s first chapter.  OKAY.
  • There are some pretty big gaps in continuity here: Ned once told Steven that he named him after his friend who died in a car crash in college, but that doesn’t work here.  Also, at one point, Grandma Wakefield mentioned that Ned had a half-brother from her husband’s first marriage, but maybe she suffered a stroke? Because that doesn’t happen here at all.

Memorable Quotes:

  •  “When Dancing Wind approached him, she was surprised to see that he was in the grips of a very powerful emotion.” (47)
  • “‘I don’t get it,’ Ned went on. ‘You’d think the more well-off people are, the more generous they’d be.'” (290) ARE YOU A FUCKING IDIOT?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

I’ve been carrying this book around with me for something like two weeks, and I really only managed to skim it.  I don’t know why these Sagas are so hard for me.  I remember loving The Fowlers of Sweet Valley, so I guess we’ll see when I get to that one.  But these super long books about the lame Wakefields of the past?  I’d like to take a hard pass on them.

That being said, isn’t it weird that people die in every single one of these stories in horrifically tragic and yet oddly famous historical disasters?  Isn’t that super weird?  Like, we needed people to die in both the San Francisco earthquake AND the Hindenburg disaster?  Doesn’t that seem a bit much?

The only other thing I have to say about this one is how weird it is that Theodore would be so weird about Sarah’s pregnancy and desire to keep the child.  After being sent away by his own father, do we really believe that’s something he would do?  It seems incredibly out of character for him to banish the only family he has left after losing his other two relatives in tragic accidents (this isn’t even counting the time he lost his brother in a terrible horse accident, either).

Oh, the melodrama.

SVH #81: Rosa’s Lie

16 Apr

rosaslie

Estimated Elapsed Time: 4-5 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Because Sweet Valley is a magnet for new students no matter what part of the school year it is, this week the teens are admiring newcomer Rose Jameson.  They think she’s the bee’s knees, and everyone wants a piece.  The girls decide she’d be a perfect fit for Pi Beta Alpha, and so a new pledge season is started.  Rose is thrilled that she’s fitting in with all the cool kids and decides she has to act the part as much as possible.  This means that they can’t ever know that she’s Mexican-American (she’s actually technically Mexican, because she was born and lived there until she was three or four, but whatever, this book is a lesson about being Chicana, as the book so subtly tells us).

Rose believes that if everyone knew her name was really Rosa Jimenez (her parents changed their last name when they started their garden tool business they wouldn’t get as far ahead), she wouldn’t be accepted by the white people at Sweet Valley High.  So she lets them think she’s old-money from Boston and crafts a super elaborate lie about how her family recently took a trip to England to trace their lineage and she got to hang out with Duchess Fergie and Princess Diana.  Whatever.

Once she starts lying she can’t stop.  This becomes increasingly difficult for her as she starts to complete challenges and tasks as part of the pledge process.  The girls want to come to her house, which is fine when her parents aren’t around, but then they announce that her super traditionally Mexican grandma is coming for a surprise visit, and things get sticky.  She starts cancelling plans to have people at her house until Lila announces that she must host a PBA party as her third and final challenge.  Rosa manages to get her parents and grandma out of the house and to a concert that night, but the whole thing is nearly ruined when her grandma comes back in to tell her she made them a special cake.  Rosa throws it out and tells her friends that it was her cleaning lady. Yikes.

She continues the lie but feels increasingly worse about it, especially after her grandmother tells her stories from the old country.  Then, when the Pi Betas have a picnic by Secca Lake, they see a little girl fall down a well.  The little girl only speaks Spanish and is freaking out, so Rosa finally breaks down and speaks Spanish in front of the other girls to calm her down.  Then she finally tells them that she’s Mexican, and the Pi Betas are like, “Okay, your secret is safe with us?”  Rosa gets self-righteous and is like, “NO EVERYONE MUST KNOW,” which, okay.  Fine.

At the Pledge induction dance, PBA offers Rosa membership and she turns them down for reasons that don’t make any sense.  But she promises them she’ll be friends with them all.  Whatever.

The B-Plot: Jessica keeps blowing off studying for math tests and quizzes to hang out with Sam, and as a result, she fails a bunch of them.  After intercepting a warning letter from the school about her grade, the lies continue until Alice gets a call from the school and Jessica ends up grounded, missing the dance.

Also, Phi Epsilon recruits some new brothers and Todd and Bruce butt heads about who to include.  There are some stupid pranks and I literally could not care less, which is why I didn’t recap them.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • As much as I like Lila, she’s kind of racist: at one point, she refers to Manuel Lopez as “ethnic and working-class.”  WHAT THE FUCK?
  • I guess Sweet Valley is a small town with all the amenities, because they have a Literacy Center
  • Ms. Taylor is the math teacher at SVH?
  • Elizabeth and Enid are both reading Wuthering Heights
  • According to Rosa’s grandma, there are no shopping malls in Mexico. Um, okay.

Memorable Quotes:

  • And in the back by the pool, there are a dozen fairy-tale princesses, Rose thought, and they’re going to make me a fairy-tale princess, too…” (30)
  • “Rose slowly headed back to the living room.  Her dark brown eyes were clouded with resentment. Already, Nana was causing trouble.  Just how many fun plans was she going to ruin?” (75)
  • “Lila tossed her hair.  ‘Rose is prettier,’ she declared. ‘And that’s who you are to us, after all: Rose.  We’ll keep calling you that.'” (140) WHAT THE FUCK, LILA?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

I remember loving this book as a child, but now I think I must have just loved the dress that Rosa is wearing on the cover.  I would still wear the shit out of that.  I actually kind of want it.  Whatever, not the point.

The point is that everything about this book is so problematic that I don’t even know where to begin.  Okay, so Rosa is actually from Texas and not Boston.  Because she feels like she was lumped together with the other Mexican students at her old school and she’s passing for a white girl in Sweet Valley, she decides to go with it.  I actually legitimately understand this, because it is a real thing that happens and continues to happen in schools all over the United States.

What I don’t understand is how horrifically this was handled throughout the book.  Rosa is dealing with some major code-switching and cultural identity stuff, but the book is so ham-fisted in its portrayal of everything that this isn’t ever accurately portrayed.  Instead, Rosa comes off as an ungrateful psycho at home and as a paranoid schizophrenic at school.  There’s no nuance here, and her abrupt about-face during the whole girl-in-a-well thing (don’t even get me started on that) doesn’t make any sense.  Lots of people speak Spanish, and she could have continued to lie if she wanted to.  That part made no sense.

Also, her deciding to not join the sorority doesn’t make sense.  At least, not for the reasons given.  If she doesn’t want to join because it’s full of some racist assholes, fine, but that’s not what she says.  Ugh, whatever.  This is the worst.

SVH #69: Friend Against Friend

7 Mar

friendvfriend

Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Andy Jenkins is totally one of the gang at Sweet Valley even though the first time we’d ever heard of him was offhandedly in the last book.  He’s also one of the only black students at SVH, but he’s a super good student, especially when it comes to science.  That’s why he’s won a special scholarship to spend the summer studying marine biology at the Monterey Bay Acquarium.  He’s thrilled about this, and so is his friend, Neil Freemount, and his girlfriend, Tracy Gilbert (who the book wants you to know is also black).

Not everyone is super thrilled about Andy’s existence, though.  One day after school, Andy opens his locker and finds all sorts of garbage stuffed in there, as well as a note that says “Go back to Africa where you belong.”  Charlie Cashman is likely the dude behind this stupid, racist prank, because he hassles Andy in the parking lot of the Dairi Burger a few days later, and then Tracy discovers that all four of her tires have been slashed in the parking lot, too.  Neil witnesses all of this but is nervous about pointing fingers, yet he’s also confused as to why Andy doesn’t seem to want to report it.

Secretly, Neil is feeling conflicted about the whole thing.  Charlie Cashman’s father and Neil’s dad both work at Patman Canning, and they both make fairly overtly racist comments about their black supervisor, Willis.  Neil hopes that his dad is just saying these things because of Mr. Cashman, but deep down, he doesn’t believe that to be true.  Things worsen on this front when Mr. Cashman is fired, and Neil’s dad says a bunch more racist things.

What’s more alarming to Neil is that Andy doesn’t seem to want his help.  At one point, Neil tries to suggest that Andy think of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do in the situation, and Andy (rightfully) loses his shit at him.  The two part ways, and there’s genuine tension on both ends.  Neil feels like Andy is being racist towards whites; they can’t all be bad, right?  This angers him, and he starts to resent how Andy shuts him out.

Things continue to escalate: Charlie purposely trips Andy in the hall and makes some stupid comments.  The two boys fight, and Mr. Collins breaks it up.  He pulls Neil aside and asks if Charlie started it because Andy is black, and Neil sort of shrugs his way out of the situation.  He feels increasing resentment about his perceived persecution by Andy.

The culmination of these increasingly violent acts comes when Neil and Penny see a movie and are leaving the theater one night.  They see Andy’s father’s car being attacked by Charlie and his gang, and then, when Penny goes to call the police, Neil watches in horror as they pull Andy out of the car and start beating him.  Neil runs over to save the unconscious Andy, but instead ends up hitting him, just once, after being pressured by the group to do so.  He immediately flees the scene and then lies to protect himself.

When Neil finally comes clean, it’s because Charlie Cashman has basically blackmailed or threatened him to lie about it, and he can’t live with the guilt any more.  He comes clean in the cafeteria one day, after Andy has apologized for being angry, and everyone is appalled that Neil could ever do such a thing.  It’s clear that his friendship with Andy is over, and it looks like his relationship with Penny, too.

Andy is walking home from school and is being trailed by Charlie and his gang.  While he doesn’t see them, Neil does, and he runs over to stand with Andy, despite the fact that Andy clearly hates him.  Presented with Neil and Andy, Charlie and his gang back down.

The B-Plot is nearly non-existent but basically serves to further the plot about the racist shit happening at SVH and set up the plot for the next book about a female quarterback.  Liz asks students what they’d like to change about their school and is SHOCKED when they have serious answers for her about racism, sexism, and other stuff that’s hard to think about.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Things to change at SVH: Olivia wants 3-day school weeks; Penny wants to outlaw Pi Beta Alpha, Manuel wants a non-white perspective of history; Jade Wu wants pizza ovens (?); Dana wants less focus on boys’ sports; and someone wants girls to be able to try out for the football team.
  • Mr. Archer is the marine biology teacher at SVH, Miss Jacobi is the sociology teacher.
  • Neil and Charlie listen to the Rolling Stones in his car

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Privately, Elizabeth had thought of it as just a fun thing to do.  More soft drink machines, shorter classes, better food in the cafeteria: those were the responses she had expected.  But maybe there was more dissatisfaction at Sweet Valley High than she thought.” (7)
  • “It was almost as if Andy held a grudge against every single student at Sweet Valley High because of Charlie’s bigotry. It was true that many of them hadn’t ever faced real hardships or discrimination, but that didn’t make them terrible people.” (40)
  • “‘Everyone is completely shocked,’ Penny continued.  ‘I just can’t believe something like that could happen here. I thought it only happened in big cities, like New York or L.A., but I guess I was naive.'” (84) HAS EVERYONE LOST THEIR DAMN MIND?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

This was a hard book to recap, and it’s actually a hard one to write a critical analysis of, too.  It’s like so many other books that are published about hard stuff like racism and racialized violence and white guilt: well-meaning, completely misguided, and about as subtle as an anvil.  There’s also the fact that this book was written in 1990, which means that the lens we view it through now is fairly different.

Some thoughts, in bullet points because why not?

  • This is a classic case of a story about racism being told through the eyes of a white person.  What’s interesting here is that unlike many of the other books in the series, we never spend a minute inside Andy’s head, despite the fact that we are inside both Neil and Elizabeth’s heads at several points, as well as Penny’s.  So, we spend a lot of time being taught about racism but never actually hear from anyone experiencing it.
  • There’s a scene in which the sociology teacher tries a social experiment on her class, treating those with light-colored eyes as second-class citizens in an attempt to teach them about discrimination.  Again: well-meaning, but totally fucked up.  All these white kids get to go back to being the dominant majority as soon as the class is over.  Are we, as readers, supposed to feel bad for Jessica because she’s uncomfortable for a class period?  How can this possibly compare to a lifetime of living it?
  • Throughout the book, there are several mentions of feeling guilt over being privileged.  This is white guilt, and it’s very real–but it’s never named or explored.  And why would it be?  This is Sweet Valley.
  • When Andy apologizes to Neil for being angry, my jaw actually dropped.  It takes a lot to shock me when it comes to these books, but it was one of those moments that was so misplaced and so incredibly wrong (and I’m speaking of being unintentionally wrong, because it’s clear that both the reader and Neil are supposed to see  this as the right thing for Andy to do) that it defies logic.  Andy should be angry.  He has every right to be.  And to have him apologize for it?  Sends. The. Wrong. Message.

Look, I understand that this is a Sweet Valley High novel, and it’s not supposed to be super great literature or provide its readers a really nuanced, in-depth look at structural racism.  It can’t have been easy to be that ghost writer writing this didactic novel about racism that’s supposed to leave its readers (especially the white ones, and maybe only the white ones) feeling good about they know racism is bad.

I need something to cleanse my brain after this one, and I somehow doubt it’s going to be SVH #70: Ms. Quarterback.

SVH #50: Out of Reach

28 Mar

Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Sweet Valley High wants to start offering a dance program at the school, so they decide to hold a variety show as a sort of fundraiser.  How this one variety show is supposed to fund an entire dance program is never explained, so it must be a magic dance program that can be funded on wishes and unicorns.  Elizabeth is the student director because that’s what she does.  Jessica doesn’t want to participate for once, which I suppose is a plot device to introduce Jade Wu and keep her from being eclipsed by Jessica.

Jade Wu and her family are recent additions to the Sweet Valley community via San Francisco.  Jade is something of a mystery at SVH, but people know that she’s a) Chinese-American and b) supposedly a really great dancer.  Everyone is sure that she’ll get the coveted solo dance part at the end of the variety show, but Amy Sutton has it in her head that she’s going to get it.  When she blows her audition, she goes ballistic and blames Jade for throwing her off during the group choreography.  Jade feels bad, but she’s got bigger problems: her traditional Chinese father allows her to take dance lessons but doesn’t actually want her to ever dance in front of an audience.  She angsts about this for a long time, and that serves as the book’s central conflict.  Eventually he changes his mind and tells her she can dance in the show and even comes to watch her perform.

There’s some other shenanigans, too: Amy Sutton has a personal vendetta against Jade as a result of the dance audition, and when she realizes that Jade’s grandparents run a laundry/dry-cleaning service, she spreads it all over the school.  This is like a huge deal because it’s a stereotype that Chinese people own laundries, I guess.  Jade is mortified, and when she cries about it to her mom, her mom lectures her about being true to herself.

The night of the talent show, Jade is magnificent.  She gets offered a prestigious scholarship that would allow her to dance over the summer, but when the woman who awards it to her tells her she’ll have an easier go of it if she accepts it under the name Jade Warren, Jade turns her down.  She’d rather be true to her Chinese heritage than live a lie, I guess.

The B-Plot involves Ned Wakefield having a mid-life crisis.  He complains a lot about being out of shape and old and worries about his high school reunion.   The twins hatch a plan with the help of Alice to convince Ned that being forty is way better than being forty and wishing you were twenty.  They enroll him in a marathon club and take him to the beach disco, and he hates like all of it. At the end he comes to the realization that he should be true to himself and all is right with the world.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Amy stuck her lower lip in a pout. ‘But she’s Chinese! She doesn’t look right for the part.  The soloist for the finale should be blond, all-American–like me.'” (4) [Blogger’s note: Page 4, and I already want to throw this book across the room.  We’re off to a great start, folks.]
  • “‘Hah, practice!’ Amy snorted.  ‘That’s a total joke.  It’s just because she’s got a dancer’s body, that’s all.'” (53) [Blogger’s note: This is going to become my default excuse for EVERYTHING that goes wrong in my life.  That’s how awesome it is.]

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Jessica recently had a comedic role in You Can’t Take it With You
  • Jade has been studying ballet for six years
  • Ned’s 25-year high school reunion is coming up, and he orders an exercise bike as part of his mid-life crisis

(Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

In Jade’s history class, the unit they’re studying is about Ancient China.  Her teacher defers to her, the only Asian student in the class, to ask about what kind of customs she practices at home with her super-Chinese family (emphasis and hyperbole mine, of course).  Jade gets really embarrassed and makes a comment about not following any traditions because they’re American.  Her teacher gets flustered and moves on.

As readers, we’re supposed to see this as Jade being embarrassed of who she is.  Some of the recaps of this book that I’ve seen on other blogs make mention of the fact that Jade is really weird about this moment in class, while at least one other blogger takes issue with it the way that I do.  I’m not casting blame or making accusations about how each individual interprets this moment, but I do have my own thoughts on the situation.

What her teacher did was wrong.  It was completely insensitive and completely inappropriate.  If he had taken her aside before class and asked if she would be willing to give her perspective on the issue, it would be different.  Putting her on the spot in front of her entire class and essentially asking her for the “Modern Chinese Perspective” is total and complete bullshit.  It really, really pissed me off, and what’s more is that it was possibly one of the most realistic moments in this book, because it still happens.

As a teacher, I realize that I am particularly attuned to classroom dynamics and how they’re represented in the media: books, movies, TV shows, and news stories about classrooms are going to hold my interest in a different way than many other consumers simply because of my profession and training.  Because I have pursued a career in urban teaching, the issues of race and ethnicity in the classroom play a particularly important role in how I interpret classroom dynamics.  I teach in an urban school where there is a tremendous amount of diversity (and also a tremendous amount of segregation, but that is beyond the scope of this blog), but I attended a high school with a racial and ethnic makeup similar to that of SVH (albeit with less drop-dead gorgeous people).  I experienced moments like that in classrooms growing up, and it’s awful.

Do I have a point to make here, at the end of my long-winded rant?  Not really, I guess.  I found the scene to be unintentionally poignant, and I wanted to point it out.  Anyone else have thoughts about it?  Talk back!

SVH #42: Caught in the Middle

19 Oct

Estimated Time Elapsed: 2 weeks

Summary/Overview:

Ugh.  Sandra Bacon and Maunuel Lopez have started dating and are totally in love, but they have to keep their relationship a secret because Sandra’s parents totally hate Mexicans.  I feel like we’ve done this plot before. At any rate, Manuel is getting tired of Sandra keeping their relationship a secret from her totally racist parents.  Sandra feels trapped because she loves Manuel and her parents, and she doesn’t know what to do, so she keeps lying to her parents and telling them she’s at her best friend Jean West’s house instead of telling them she’s hanging out with a Mexican boy.

Liz gets involved because that’s how she is.  She urges Sandra to tell her parents.  Sandra tries to but keeps chickening out.  Manuel is also pressuring her, and she can see how hurt he is but she still can’t bring herself to do it.  Liz tags along on a boating trip with Sandra and Manuel, and the boat explodes (?).  Sandra is knocked unconscious by the blast, and Manuel swims her to safety, but when the police and paramedics arrive, she begs Liz to say that she saved her.  Sandra’s parents would just die if they knew a Mexican had been on their boat.  Or something.

Understandably, Liz is upset about having to play the hero.  Things are complicated when witnesses say that they saw a Mexican lurking around the boat before it took off.  The police suspect foul play, and they bring Manuel in for questioning.  Sandra and her parents are there as well, and her parents push her to identify Manuel as the scapegoat for the boat’s explosion.  Sandra pretends not to know him at first and then breaks down crying, finally telling her parents the truth.  Both of them are unsettled about the idea of their white child dating someone from another race, but they make some sort of effort to understand because he saved her life.

The B-Plot involves Lila’s impending birthday.  Jessica is planning a surprise party for her but doesn’t want to let her know about it, so she has everyone be really callous about Lila’s birthday.  Lila is furious with her all the way up to the party at the Wakefield’s house, where she is so surprised that she almost falls over.  It is a success.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “‘Yeah,’ Sandra sighed. ‘Sad to say, but true.  And it isn’t just a superficial prejudice with them.  I know how they really feel, and they’d kill me, absolutely kill me, if they knew about Manuel.'” (10)
  • “‘Sure,’ Manuel said, his voice bitter.  ‘I know.  All my life I’ve met people like that, basically good people, who think just because my last name is Lopez and my skin is brown instead of white, that I’m not worth bothering with…I guess in a community like this one, you get used to prejudice, and you learn to live with it.'” (33)

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • This is Lila’s second birthday party.  She has turned sixteen again?  Or is she seventeen?  I can’t tell.
  • The word “racist” is never once mentioned in this book when describing Sandra’s parents.

(Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m having a hard time with this one.  Obviously, we have to talk about the racism that runs rampant in this book, but it’s a slippery slope.  As a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburb, I have firsthand experience with the kind of racism and prejudice that is ingrained in a community like (fictional) Sweet Valley.  The fact that Sandra’s parents are total racists doesn’t surprise me; the fact that the word “racist” is never used does.

Sandra’s parents are both completely ignorant.  Her father has written some letters to the local paper complaining about the immigrant population in the community.  Her mother remembers with horror the racial tension that existed in the town she grew up in.  She also worries about racial riots, but these issues are talked about in only the most vague way possible.  She tells Sandy that she doesn’t want her to associate with “those kinds of people,” and tries to remind her of how different Mexicans are from their own family.  Sandy is understandably confused and upset by this, but the issue is never talked about in depth.

My issue with this book’s central theme is that it’s dealt with so superficially.  The “othering” of Manuel and his family (and all Mexican-Americans) is done even in the passages where the reader is supposed to understand Sandra’s attraction to and love for Manuel.  The ghost writer goes on and on about how different Manuel looks from other boys, focusing on his accent, his dark features, and the fact that he looks older than other boys Sandra’s age.

Near the end of the book, after the big reveal about their relationship, the ghost writer throws in a line about how a lifetime of prejudices (still not the word “racism”) cannot be overturned in a moment.  This feels like too little too late.  I realize that these books were written for a younger audience, but that doesn’t mean that an actual conversation about race couldn’t take place.  Giving us the after-school-special-lite version seems like a total cop-out, even for Sweet Valley.