Once upon a time, when I was in that twilighted summer before college and after high school, my fiends and I rented a cabin together on the north shore of Lake Superior, just past the Silver Creek tunnel. The place was run by some kind of extended family - an aunt, a cousin, an in-law - of the original builders, a hole blown out of the family tree when they died, the branches scraping against the windows. The woman who gave us our keys had hair that could be described as a "permanent wave", though her hard north country vowels and anachronistic clothing were almost camouflage for a complicated life spent all over. She was talking idly of going back to points south, where I surmised she had a lover, when we spoke over me buying a pop. One of my friends claimed to see a timber wolf on the side of the road, and although we razzed her and told her it was likely a coyote, it really could've been that wolf.
The cabin itself was a double unit. It had the ramshackle feel of something that was built and then added onto room by room the way the floor pitched this way and that, but it could have just been the earth under unsettled by several decades of punishing nor'easters blown down from Canada. The lower unit was a warren fronted by a good sized common area and an even better porch. The unit above - where fate would have it, I spent my honeymoon many honeyed moons later - was a slope-ceilinged space, like an afterthought or a memory. Their floor was our ceiling. It too had a porch, rising up on shore-birds' legs, so you could see over all the trees, and down down down the iron-rusting ladder to a rock beach and the clear, freezing blue of the lake.
When we tumbled into our occupancy with our swimsuits and card games, we passed nods and glances with the people above: a father, who telegraphed non-custodial parent
to those of us who knew such magic, a boy who was roughly our age, and a younger boy, not out of his young roundness. That night we smoked and drank and teased, sunburnt and food-full. Then the violence started. I almost wrote fighting, but what I heard was the indistinct rage of a single man, and a lot of crashing, and what was probably sobbing, all telegraphed by the ceiling that was their floor, that was a drum that was beaten. We all got still like deer. We all got useless as deer.
Then we started to talk. Call the police? No, it would be obvious who made the call, and we were fearful and young. Confront? I can't even imagine going up there with my adolescent stick-body, all ribs and air, and telling some bone-crunching monster to stop it. Fatter now, more stretch-marked, I might be able to take my mother's rage and put him down, but I would enlist a world of back-up if I did such a thing. Reach out to the older one, the one who was stretched from that recent growth spurt into nearly-man stature? That was what we tried. We sent over the goofiest of us, a long, loping guy who has a way with people, a watching, waiting good humor. The boy responded tersely and moved his younger brother on down the shore, watching our friend like a threat. No dice.
The next night it started again; their floor, our ceiling. Some of us began to bemoan the fact that the boy wouldn't talk to us. Why won't he open up to a group of complete strangers and let us rescue him somehow? One of us, when the bangs and weeping began again, shut us all down. He knows we know. He doesn't want to talk to us. It's not his fault this is happening, and it's not our fault either. What the fuck could we do anyway? It's funny. I don't even remember who this was who said this, but I suspect it's the guy who later I found had been beaten by his father until he got big enough to turn the tables. I can recognize non-custodial parents, but I don't have the mind of the physically abused. They went quiet, and we played gin rummy into the small hours and went quiet ourselves. They were gone in the morning.
So, young adult? Is this story, and the way it is told, is this for you? Is the story in this book? I've been really struggling with the label as I read this, because...because I don't even know why. Sure, the content is almost aggressively awful, the first fifty pages the descriptions of rape, incest, more rape, abortions, and rape. But it's really no more awful than you can find in Grimm - Sleepy Beauty awakened delivering twins after she's been raped by the prince in her enchantment. And no more awful than a lot of the cheesy dystopian set-ups I see permeating the young adult imprint that rely on forced pregnancy or forced abstinence, or a combination of the two. It's a parable of trauma and recovery, and an interesting parable of the way it works across the generations - the mother's dream world, like the tucked in cabin attic, the way abuse makes the world smaller, more menacing, because everyone can hear. I tried to spin some explanation to my husband that young adult, as a genre, was about identity at its shift, and that's how this didn't work exactly as a young adult novel, but he kind of told me I was full of crap.
So, here, I'm earnestly asking: what makes young adult? It's not always the age of the protagonists - just take books like The Reapers Are the Angels or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which have teenage characters, but are decidedly for adults. It's not just the simplicity of the prose or form, because the structure of something like Jellicoe Road or Daughter of Smoke and Bone is very complex, an ordering and reordering of the narrative form. And, admittedly, these books are on the bleeding edge of good young adult, but let's not kid ourselves that the average adult fiction is somehow smarter and more complex than these examples. Key word being average, of course.
So. Lida spends her first fifty pages being raped by her father and various townsfolk, until she breaks into a better, simpler world where she raises her rape-born daughters. They are night and day, white and black, rose red and snow white. There's a dwarf and a bear, and they are occasionally men, but it depends on whether they are on the floor or the ceiling. These two worlds, the two floors, slowly break back into each other in a complex meeting of myth and dream. The prose is not dialect, but more spoken word, and it had the unlettered cadence of oral history. There's a lot of points of view in this book, which is often distracting, these peeks that should coalesce into more fervent chapters. The voices were fine, but there needed to be both more and less of them.
I dunno. Genre is both a marketing tool and a literary genome. I think this being labeled as a young adult fiction does a disservice to both. While some of the strains of the DNA are young adult, this is better read by people who have had twenty - oh, god, twenty - years to synthesize their adolescent traumas than it is by those who are having them - this is a narrative of reflection. I absolutely could be wrong, absolutely, and I'm glad I don't know the magic of many of the traumas in this book. Again, I dunno. I feel like sometimes this book is that unidentified voice in my memory, who knows things that I'm glad I don't. It's entirely possible this book isn't speaking to me exactly, but more around me, translating the bangs on the ceiling into the treads on the floor. If it works for even one young adult in that attic, that may be enough to make it young adult.