Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff is a story of friends lost and families found, place sought and love gained, but the book will be remembered for more than a heartbreaking and moving story. But I wish you would stop reading this review now and read the book yourself. Right now. This will be here when you get back.
Because what makes this book so remarkable is the way in which Brezenoff takes a fairly typical story of angst and trauma, a story no less powerful despite its archetypal structure, and puts it in a form that forces the reader to confront deep seeded notions about the idea of gender.
The reason I wish you would all read the book before reading this review is because the teacher in me wants to know what your initial, uncoached reactions to the protagonist, Kid, and Scout are. I won’t say “unbiased,” because the structure of this novel is designed to uncover and challenge biases with regards to gender.
You see, Brezenoff does something few writers have attempted. He presents a novel in which genders the main character and the main character’s love interest are not revealed, leaving it to the reader to decide. Brezenoff gives Kid, the protagonist, love interests of both genders, so the reader can’t assume Kid is gay or straight and thus boy or girl.
I made assumptions based on the characters. I won’t tell you what I assumed about Kid and Scout, but I did a lot of thinking about my choices, and more than anything, I realized that gender is more than boy/girl. And freeing characters of the expectations of gender takes a lot more than leaving off gendered pronouns and assigning characters gender-neutral names. At the end of the story, the reader is left with this question: why did I assign the genders to Kid and Scout that I ultimately chose?
My choices were undoubtedly marked my personal history and experiences. If a person behaves in this way, then it is highly likely this person is a boy or vice versa. But another reason I made the choices I did is the connotation one of the names evoked for me, a name tied in my mind to a long literary tradition — I don’t want to say it outright lest it influence your reading, but you can probably figure it out, you smarty smart pants readers you. Does the connotation I noted make me right about this character? Certainly not, but what it tells me is that gender is more than pronouns and names and preferences. The concept of gender is reinforced by hundreds of years of cultural history, and even the most careful scrubbing of pronouns from a text will not leave the story truly open. Ideas we didn’t even know we carried will make their way into our work and our world. There is always a choice to be made.
As I read the story, I was always mindful that the choices I was making as a reader were based on assumptions both surface of my thoughts as well as deeply internalized cultural information. And I really I wished that I could teach this book in schools. Alas, language and content mean that I could probably never (well, definitely never, here in my home state) teach this in secondary schools. However, I do believe that Brezenoff’s book opens the door for more artists to take up the challenge to create stories, songs, movies, paintings, etc. that challenge long-held notions of gender, of what it means to be normal, what it means to love, what it means to belong. I don’t think gender differences will ever be neutralized — our bodies are different, and face it. Sameness is boring. What I hope it that our differences — differences in gender, in taste, in choice, in life and love — will remind us all how awesome it is to be alive and to share this world with one another.
Debra Touchette is an assistant librarian, grad student, blogger and wanna-be teacher. She blogs about her reading at Library Lass: Adventures in Reading, and is @threelefthands on Twitter (but mostly just to see what shenanigans @maureenjohnson and @realjohngreen are up to). She is often accused of being to serious and thinking too much, but she figures there are worse things, like awkwardly writing about herself in the third person all the time. But maybe someday she’ll lighten up, get a puppy, lay off the coffee. Or not.