Bitch YA Book Club: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
Welcome to our first Bitch YA Book Club! Today, Erin Blakemore asks Jennie Law, Ellen Papazian, and Jessica Stites what they thought about Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. What did you think about this book? Add your own answers to Erin's questions (or come up with your own) in the comments section!
Erin: The word "sisters" is built into the title and embedded into the entire premise of this story. Maybe it was the last name March, but I myself couldn't stop thinking about other sets of literary sisters while reading this book...and found the idea of "one person, broken in two" to be a most compelling theme. Does this representation of sisterhood sit well with you? Weigh in on sisterly themes in the novel.
Jessica: I don't have a sister, but I've had many best-friendships that felt like we were sharing a skin—or, to go with the central metaphor of Sisters Red, a heart. That push-pull between jealousy and fierce pride/protection/love is one of the most central conflicts—and rewards, and tragedies—I've experienced in my life thus far. It's always wonderful to read a YA book that makes that kind of relationship so central, with no apologies, and renders it so expertly.
Ellen: The idea of two sisters as one, broken in two by divergent paths and, of course, a guy (as we should expect in mainstream YA fiction), sits well with me—but I don't find it particularly compelling or groundbreaking, and in the case of Sisters Red, it didn't leave me with a whole lot to wrestle with or reflect upon. Yet, I'm not 15 anymore. So if I think back to when I cried alone in my bed over some dumb guy during repeat listening of Journey's "Faithfully" on my tape deck, I believe I would have found the idea that sisterhood can trump guyville pretty compelling. (Yet not as intriguing as the idea that two sisters, hearts "beating as one," can kick some serious ass together.) I thought Pearce was at her best not when she described the "oneness" between Scarlett and Rosie, but when she depicted the triangular relationship between Scarlett, Rosie, and Silas—those subtle moments in relationships when actions, words, or expressions beget tiny crises of the mind.
Jennie: The sisterly themes in the novel were very strong especially in light of the early trauma experienced in the March home. I appreciate the narrative of the sisters' relationship with both points of view represented. I really love the growth that comes with the bigger action of the story, although it has been my experience that breaking a childhood bond to form an adulthood bond usually involves less blood and more crying.
Erin: What questions did this book raise for you? What ground do you wish it had covered?
Ellen: I couldn't help but think of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale while reading Sisters Red, because I think that Atwood spent the necessary time on context, and Pearce's novel left me wanting much more. While her ability to create this insular, nearly suffocating neo-fairy-tale world was admirable, I still wanted to know more about the actual society these girls lived in and how the outside world interacted with them—beyond the predatory guys and dragonfly girls of their hunts.
Jennie: I wish this was more of a feminist book. Yes, there are two feisty heroines. Yes, there are amazing displays of female power and strength in Sisters Red. Yes, there are a lot of mentions of the matriarchal March clan. And there is an attempt to mine new territory in the men vs. women in this case actually bloody battle. But those components of the book are overshadowed by Scarlet's almost constant denigration of her physical appearance, Rosie's lack of agency, and the author's attachment to traditional feminine image. Is the reader supposed to find humor in the mustached women at the bowling alley or the flimsy, sparkly Dragonflies waiting to be picked off while clubbing? For me the former description brings up the tired notion that women aren't supposed to be hairy in any capacity. And the latter sounds a little too much like the worn out "sluts deserve punishment" tune.
I'm also resentful that the main action revolves around Silas. Yes, Silas is a long-term family friend of the Marches. We are told he's attractive, brave, and adventurous but I don't really see much evidence of these attributes. He ends up being the pivotal character on which all the action of the book rests. He reveals to Scarlett her darkest secret. He teaches Rosie to love. And Silas even turns out to be the much sought after Potential that the wolves and the sisters seek. With all this attention, I would expect Silas to come across as more dynamic and lust worthy. Instead I kept getting a Bill Pullman does Clark Kent vibe from him. That is to say, boring on top of American Cheese on top of boring. In the end, I just don't buy that the amazing March sisters would have really bothered with Silas much.
I truly believe that there was a framework in place for a much sharper, shrewder novel that could have really explored the human vs. werewolf as a gender battle metaphor.
Erin: First person present! Shifting POV! There's a lot of craft going on in this book. What worked for you? What didn't?
Ellen: The shifting POV worked alright for me, yet at times I felt Pearce didn't differentiate Scarlett's and Rosie's voices enough. As the distance grew between them over Silas, Pearce was able to create a greater distinction between their voices. I do think the shifting POV contributed to Pearce's excellent pacing of the novel and her ability to create the necessary tension between Scarlett and Rosie. Again, this was only successful for me as their triangular relationship with Silas grew.
Jennie: I enjoyed the change of techniques and points of view. I wasn't completely blown away by these things. I guess I don't have a huge opinion either way. Other than I think that Rosie and Scarlett's voices were strong and very distinct from one another. The writing was one of the stronger elements of the book.
Jessica: I didn't even notice all this craft until you mentioned it, which goes to show that (a) the book was so riveting that I was just zooming through alert for kisses/revelations/fights/serious injuries and (b) the shifts were pretty seamless. My only quibble with the changes in POV was that I never got a clear sense of Rosie's personality except as "not-Scarlett" (romantic, curious about the outside world) or "Scarlett lite" (brave and strong, yes, but not as brave or as strong). This is a character who, given the option of taking a class in anything, chooses origami for no particular reason. Her paragraphs of crushing on Silas could be those of any girl in any teen book—relatable, sure, but not with any particular flavor. She has a special ability with arrows, but ever since Susan in the Narnia series it's annoyed me when the "pretty girl" gets the "delicate" fighting skill of archery. (Not to say that women archers are actually "delicate"—I'd kill for that kind of upper-body-strength—just that I'm sick of the trope). Even at the very crux of the book, when both must confront their irremediable difference, Rosie explains, "My sister has the heart of an artist with a hatchet and an eye patch. And I, we both now know, have a heart that is undeniably, irreparably different." Different, but different how, Rosie?
On the other hand, I loved the moments when Rosie's character did get careful little brushstrokes, as when Scarlett informs us, "Best to use single words with her before eight o'clock." I just wanted more of those through Rosie's actual voice. For now, I'm Team Scarlett. (Tangential confession: Am I also influenced by Scarlett's Rosie-envy? Maybe a little.)
Erin: Though Jackson Pearce set her novel in modern-day Georgia, she chose to keep plenty of anachronistic, fairy-tale elements in her retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Do you think the fairy tale (complete with woodsmen, cloaks, axes and daggers) translated well to the present day, complete with crackhouses and The Price is Right?
Jessica: I relish a book where a fantasy is so carefully, scientifically detailed—Fenris aren't wolves, per se, but have a specific series of physical transformations; they run in packs; they have (dorky?) wrist tattoos. I totally bought Pearce's conceit that all the medieval-woodsman stuff wouldn't stick out too much in very rural Georgia (I can imagine it going unremarked in the backwoods corner of Connecticut where I grew up). The ubiquity of Fenris seemed to strain credibility at first (literally on every street corner?), but Pearce comes back with a plausible explanation that also goes to deepen the mythology.
Jennie: The old fashioned fairy-tale elements, which provide a delightful entry point into the March sister's enchanted world, were the most engaging part of the book for me. I loved being reminded of Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Cinderella, and many other beloved characters. However, I thought Pearce's treatment of those storied tropes in contrast the modern world was often uneven. Once the March sisters left their small country town, the charm dwindled, the action ramped up, and gone were the carefully crafted references to old tales. The sisters make it to Atlanta where allusions other than the oft repeated Ugly Duckling riff almost disappear. Maybe I've been ruined by my devotion to Bill Willingham's Fables which brings together legends and modern New York City in a cataclysm of tight narrative and astounding art?
Also, I currently live in Atlanta and found Pearce's version to be very foreign from my experience. It's a sprawling city filled with neighborhoods. And none of these little communities look or feel like the much bigger cities of the Northeast. It is entirely possible that we just live on different sides and run with such radically different crowds that we wouldn't recognize each other's version. But my Atlanta is filled with history, music, art, and a lot of hard working people. And lots and lots of traffic.
Erin: I don't think it's possible to have a conversation about Sisters Red, a book named after a color symbolic of sexuality and female power, and not touch on sex. Though there is a sympathetic male character in the book, Sisters Red deals primarily with very scary, predatory males. I'd love for you to weigh in on sexuality in Sisters Red...particularly the problematic relationship between victim and predator, the idea of "bait," and Scarlett's own tortured relationship with her supposedly unattractive body.
Ellen: To be perfectly blunt about it, I thought Pearce's depiction of female sexuality as "bait" in the context of rape and sexual assault was a major fail, and it was really the moment when I stepped away from the dream world of her fiction to consider what kind of author I was dealing with. I just question why—in a YA novel that has a chance to rise about the mediocrity that dominates teen girl media culture—would she create a strong female character that relies on misogynistic notions that a young woman can "ask for it"? Who believes that "wearing" your sexuality through makeup, dress, or action is code for provocation? In my reading of Sisters Red, I don't think that Scarlett grew in her views about sexuality. In other words, I don't think it was a real part of the story of her character's growth, beyond her realization that Rosie has a right to feel and be sexual despite Scarlett's wishes.
My response to this aspect of Sisters Red has to do with my worldview; I obviously don't expect a YA author to hold the same views as I do. Yet I do want the characters' worldview to make sense within the context of that character. In this case, I don't think it did.
My disappointment in Pearce's depiction of sexuality in the context of rape also has to do with how much I want YA fiction to continue to produce real, strong, and yes, feminist heroines for young people who might first engage with serious issues through it. So, I want characters who will really wrestle with issues like sexuality, gender, and violence in a deeper, more enlightened way.
About Scarlett's tortured relationship with her body, I found that very real and didn't think it seemed out of context for her character's past experiences. (I'm apparently more tolerant of heroines who hate their bodies than heroines who think that women who "dress up" their sexuality in any way are "asking for it." I can write a whole other post about that, but I'll stop here.)
Jessica: The only aspect of the book that really, really irritated me was its handling of Scarlett's sexuality. I sympathize that the author had painted herself into a narrative corner: Scarlett has lost her fairy-tale-logic-dictated love interest, the hunky woodsman, to her little sister, the "unscarred" version of her. That's a near-impossible challenge to the story resolving in harmony between the three of them.
But I thought Pearce's solution was a real cop-out: Oh, Silas WAS attracted to Scarlett, but he knew Scarlett was wedded to the hunt. No mention of her being scarred or how this played a role in Silas's feelings for her; suddenly attraction has nothing to do with appearance—even though when we first observe Silas's attraction to Rosie, he's struck by how she looks. I would have liked to hear or see a bit more of Silas's supposed love for Scarlett and how it either saw beyond or integrated her scars.
As a real story of a real person who's been physically scarred, Scarlett's Artemis-the-huntress virginity is just depressing. One mauling and Scarlett loses all chance at her own sexuality? Romance is forever foreclosed for her? I can only hope Pearce is opening the door to a sequel in which Scarlett undergoes a sexual awakening. If Scarlett is sublimating her sexuality in a process of dealing with her trauma, okay then. But I am still a bit uncomfortable with it as a neat narrative solution to book one.
That's my critique on a literal level. On a metaphoric level, I think it brings up some dark and important stuff about victimhood. Scarlett's feelings for the hunt seem to be literally sexual—she feels "no spark" in kissing Silas, and Silas supplies "Not like you feel when you hunt," which she seems to accept. Is this an acknowledgment of the hush-hush truth that sometimes (not always) when we go through something that is painful or traumatic but also sexual, pain and trauma become tied up with our sexuality? The startling and revelatory (for me) implication would be that Scarlett's role-reversal—hunting the hunter—is an effective, empowering form for her sexuality, and she need not be ashamed of the pleasure she takes in it. However, that's reading hunting as a metaphor for S&M or some other, supposedly deviant sexual practice. The literal fact of running around in the woods stabbing much-despised wolves doesn't yet work for me as the sum total of the main character's sex life—it's just not fair! Unless Pearce can convince me otherwise in the sequel …
About today's panel:
Erin Blakemore learned to drool over Darcy and cry over Little Women in suburban San Diego, California. These days, her inner heroine loves roller derby, running her own business, and hiking in her adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Erin's debut book, The Heroine's Bookshelf, was published by HarperCollins in October.
Jennie Law is a feminist children's librarian in Decatur, GA. She's also a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project (Feminist Books for Young Readers) under the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. She spends her free time challenging the patriarchy, hanging out with Butler (her Russian Tortoise), reading, tap dancing, and writing in rhyme.
Ellen Papazian is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in the anthologies About Face: Women Write about What They See When They Look in the Mirror and The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Arrival and Departure, and Bitch, including the Page Turner book blog. She leads creative writing workshops for young people and senior citizens. She gifts her babysitters with Weetzie Bat and her niece with Pippi. Learn more about Ellen here.
Jessica Stites is a Ms. editor and a bookworm. Her recent Ms. article "Kick Ass Girls and Feminist Boys" explores race and gender in today's young-adult-fiction boom. When she's not reading or editing—and the blinds are drawn—she enjoys pretending to be Anne of Green Gables pretending to be The Lady of Shalott. Join her feminist-YA conversation here.
Next up: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Get your hands on a copy of the book and tune in for another book club discussion on May 6th! For a complete schedule of Bitch YA Book Clubs, go here.
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