May 22, 2014
(+++) SECRETS AND REVELATIONS
We Are the Goldens. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
The Secrets of Tree Taylor. By Dandi Daley Mackall. Knopf. $16.99.
The power of secrets and the power of trust are frequently major elements in novels intended for teenagers – who are coping with emotional intensity, social bonding and ostracism, misjudgment and misunderstanding, and the various levels of angst associated with moving inexorably toward adulthood. In We Are the Goldens, Dana Reinhardt presents the story of two sisters in high school: Layla, the older, and Nell, who is a freshman and the book’s narrator. Nell practically worships Layla, and the two are so close that the family refers to them as “Nellayla.” But high school, as inevitably happens in books like this, brings pressures, worries and uncertainties that soon drive a wedge between the couldn’t-be-closer sisters. And of course, in a girl-focused book like this one, boys are at the center of the problems. Or in this case, boys and a man. Nell becomes involved with a super-attractive boy who is, of course, entirely wrong for her, while her steadfast friend, Felix, stands by her – and readers will know from the start that he is right for her but that she does not know it yet. The bigger problem here, though, is Layla, and the person with whom she is involved, which is something that troubles Nell deeply when she learns who it is. And the closeness between the sisters, which is what first makes it possible for them to discuss what is going on and why it is a secret, soon makes it extremely difficult for them to discuss anything of real importance, as Layla becomes increasingly withdrawn – and later, as readers will notice, comes to seem younger than Nell rather than older, as her protestations and exclamations become increasingly plaintive. Because this is intended as a thought-provoking teen novel rather than one that buttons everything up neatly, there is no real conclusion, only a concluding decision that narrator Nell says she is sure will allow her to enlist the help of her parents (who heretofore have been no real help at all) to figure out what everyone should do. Reinhardt tries to give the book an air of reality, but she tries so hard that it becomes painfully unreal: “Take one good-looking male in his mid to late twenties with a Salvador Dalí tattoo on his bicep. Add a student body that’s 50 percent female and unusually mature and worldly. Put all that into a progressive environment. And BAM: rumors that the teacher sleeps with his students.” We Are the Goldens is, as it turns out, more a modern, downbeat fairy tale than a slice of reality.
Intended for slightly younger teens (ages 12 and up rather than 14 and up), The Secrets of Tree Taylor has more-modest goals and is more naïve: Tree, who is 13, is looking forward to a summer in which she will experience her first real kiss, not a hoped-for lifelong, enduring passion. She is also looking to confirm her plan to become a writer – a common enough ambition for teens in books for this age group. And, oh yes, all this is happening in 1963, which means there is guaranteed to be a reference to the Kennedy assassination, and something about the Vietnam War, and praise for Martin Luther King, Jr., here. All of which duly appear. There are also a lot of secrets, a number of them involving Mr. and Mrs. Kinney, about whom Tree decides to write an investigative story that she hopes will land her the sole freshman spot on the Hamilton High Blue and Gold. She makes that decision after the book starts with a bang: a gunshot from the Kinneys’ house. Despite that dramatic opening, it is a little bit difficult to figure out which 21st-century teenagers will be enthralled by Tree’s story. Authors who place books in earlier times usually look for universal themes that transcend a particular era, but Dandi Daley Mackall goes out of her way to place the tale firmly in the early 1960s. There are time-bound references aplenty – to newscaster Walter Cronkite, the first stirrings of interest in the Beatles, the Cold War, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, singing duo Jan and Dean, and many more. And there are would-be with-it chapter titles, also tied to the specific time period, such as “Accidents Happen, Man,” “Pedal to the Metal,” “One Cool Cat,” “Nowheresville,” and “Blows My Mind.” The book is a slice of life that long since ceased to exist, and is so earnest (and almost totally lacking in humor or leavening of any sort) that it will be difficult for many of its intended readers to take at face value, although that is clearly how Mackall wants it taken. The boy-girl interactions are straightforward and at times rather sweet, and some of Tree’s writing attempts provide what humor there is in the storytelling. But the plot’s complexities are rather clunky, including a series of anonymous notes, one of which portentously says, “Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret.” Perhaps not, but The Secrets of Tree Taylor is somewhat leaden itself, although not as weighty as its author wants it to be; and it is anchored somewhat too firmly in a particular time half a century ago to come across fully effectively to its target audience today.