Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine
San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
*Please note that the following post may contain spoilers and does not summarize the text, as it was written as part of my coursework for LIS 7220 Materials for Young Adults, and the first group of intended readers are my professor and classmates, who should be familiar with the book. If I make adjustments or an additional post with summary/review information in the future, I will post an update link here. Now read on!
This book will likely read well for the younger spectrum of YA as well as reluctant readers because it does not use complicated language and is broken up into short chapters, so it moves along at a brisk pace, or at least feels like it when reading.
Content / Themes
I enjoy reading (fictional) books (for youth) which deal with race and a good majority of these fall under the genre of historical fiction.
Point of View
I was perhaps a little miffed that the reader only has the opportunity to experience racism through a main character who is white, and who, aside from a major incident towards the beginning of the book, refrains from racist activity, only seeing its effects on others.
This was too distanced for me. I enjoyed the book, but if an author is going to dive into race relations, this seems like a “safe” way to do so for what I perceive to be an imagined primarily white audience.
There is some merit to this, of course, and the reader can perhaps relate with how Red is acting within a society dealing with racism post-slavery, as we all still are, but I felt there was a lack of emotional immediacy because of his own naiveté, which is somewhat broken by the end of the novel, but not in a major way.
A topic which is not the primary focus of the novel but takes place around Red is the transformation of his mother as she becomes friends with his teacher, a feminist (largely characterized by her intelligent teaching style and constant touching of her peace-sign necklace for comfort, a habit mentioned so often it became jarringly annoying as the SHE’S A HIPPIE signal – maybe a bit stereotyped?) who encourages her to take control of her own life instead of letting society constrain her into perceiving herself only as a wife (widowed) and mother. I thought this side story was one of the best parts of the novel, even though by the last pages a bit predictable.
Black and White in novels concerning race
A problem I have with some novels which deal with racism is that many characters are characterized black-and-white – not in terms of color, but as to whether or not they are “good” or “bad.” This novel was chock-full of “bad” racist characters – the next door neighbor who abuses his family, the local preacher, Red’s great-grandfather (as he comes to be perceived).
It’s true that racism, particularly in historical fiction accounts, is terrible and possibly unforgivable. But it makes it harder for readers to notice and learn that there are subtle nuances in racism, especially socially condoned racism, and I feel this novel, particularly if I wanted to introduce it to an older YA audience, could have handled more of that content. The way in which the events of Seeing Red play out, it feels like more of a middle-grade novel than one for young adults.