What happens when you read a book that other people have called “feminist” and you can’t get on board with that? When you have a reaction to a book that you can’t contain, what’s the best way of working through what your challenges are with the book? Kirstin Cronn-Mills decided the best way to tackle her thoughts would be to write a letter, which she’s sharing here.
Kirstin Cronn-Mills is a writer and teacher in southern Minnesota. Her second young adult novel, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN, won the 2014 Stonewall Award. Her third novel, ORIGINAL FAKE, will be released in early 2016. Find her at kirstincronnmills.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @kirstincm.
I reeeeeeeeeally want to sit down with this writer and talk about her choices for her main character. It’s something that always fascinates me: 1) do my imaginary people make choices because I let them, 2) does my subconscious force them into behaviors, or 3) do I make choices for them based on what’s best for the story? (All of the above?) I was more than a little panicked by what happened to Mary, and I didn’t really like the book, and lots of people DID, which always makes me wonder why I’m so dumb, so in general this book stressed me out. This is the letter I’d send the author if I felt brave, and if I didn’t think she’d hate me for questioning her so intensely.
Dear Fellow Writer:
You don’t know me, but we’re both Nebraska girls, so I turned to your book to find some ideas for my own adult book set in our beautiful state. Reading your work was a mixed blessing. You write wonderfully about the land we adore, but your main character made me want to rip my hair out.
Mary is in a YA-ish/New Adult age range (my characters’ ranges) when she loses both her husband and her lower leg in a car accident—she’s maybe twenty. She hasn’t gone to college, has gotten married early, and is fully intending to run a successful cattle operation with her in-laws. All this is fine. But you gave her a horrific situation, then never allowed her to talk about her grief. You let her wither in the hospital, then even more at home. THEN you made her choose a cold, conservative, awful preacher as her next husband (the only person who’d drive out and visit her on her parents’ ranch), because she figures no one will want her. I realize your setting is the early 80s, but wow, Fellow Writer, feminism had come to Nebraska by then. Why couldn’t she be allowed to know her own value? She’s a young woman, with so much possibility. Why consign her to such an awful fate?
As she fumbles through her early marriage, she finally gets a job so she can escape the awful people in her life (namely her husband and his congregation). She makes plans to leave him. Then all of a sudden you jump ahead nine years–and four children–into the future. She’s still with the jerk, and things are bad.
At that point, I almost put the book down.
I realize you wouldn’t have a book if Mary didn’t make some horrible choices. But WHY did you have a twenty-ish woman choose such an awful partner? Why did you let her think she had no options available to her besides becoming a slave to a closed-minded, awful man? You know about everyday feminism in Nebraska–women drive trucks, herd cattle, plow fields, and do everything men do because it’s essential to survival. You actually set her up that way! Both her family and her dead husband’s family relied on her expertise in all sorts of ways. So why did you fail her?
Of course, we also know that Nebraska ranch women work the second shift as well as the first–they cook and clean and raise children right along with herding cattle, and usually get no help from men with those tasks, so there’s feminist work to be done. But the fact that women are seen as equal ranch partners still means something, FW. It means that after her accident, Mary should have been able to get back into her ranching life, mourn her husband, and then become a happy, self-actualized human in whatever way she chose it. But that didn’t happen. I realize it made for more writing opportunities, but dang. She was pathetic, and I was pissed. She could have been so much more.
Granted, you did one feminist thing–Mary chose her terrible new husband, and she did it all by herself. She knew he was a jerk, and she knew she didn’t love him, but she actively chose him, which is more than lots of women get to do. Her family was furious, too, which counted for a lot. But there would have been plenty of conflict, had she been allowed to make different decisions. There’s patriarchy in them thar Sandhills, and a strong, independent woman could have had fun defeating the misogynist(s). Instead, you made her submit to them.
The most feminist person in the book is Mary’s father John. When Mary is mourning the death of one of their children (thanks to the choices of that crap-ass husband), her father needs her to help a cow give birth in a snowy, cold pasture. She hesitates, but his angry insistence that she get up, put her leg on, put her grief aside for a moment, and get back to work is the spark that brings her back to life. It’s a uniquely Midwestern/Western perspective on feminism, I think—“hey, woman, pull this calf and you’ll understand your worth again”–but it works. She comes back to her family and her career. The book ends with her as a successful woman married to a man she loves, with successful kids. You can’t hope for a more feminist ending. BUT WHY DID WE HAVE TO WAIT SO FREAKING LONG FOR HER TO GET HER SHIT TOGETHER?
Now, let me say this: maybe I’m full of shit. Maybe your non-feminist choice was only to allow her to become a feminist. Maybe you were trying to talk about how she didn’t know how to choose against the forces pushing on her, like patriarchy and ableism, when she was young. Of course, if she’d made good choices to begin with, it might have dissolved your story. But dang, FW. You and I both know the strong women in Nebraska. We also know the ones who meekly submit. Why did she have to be both? But maybe that’s just realistic.
Let me also say that if someone wrote me a letter like this, I’d be speechless. The world is wide, and feminism is wide. Lots of valid choices exist, and I’m questioning yours in public, which is pretty damn cheeky. So I hope you never see this letter. But this book made me panicked enough that I had to write it all out. I send you my apologies. People have called me a misogynist (and a transmisogynist) in my writing, so I think A LOT about why those readers believe I screwed up. Did you screw up? I don’t know. I can’t know. All I know is my reaction.
Wondering in Minnesota, but always your Nebraska pal,
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).