Sometimes, it’s all in the spin. If you has said to me, “here, read this YA book with trigger scenes, set in the Old-Timey West with phrases like, “Poor critter was parched and gaunt as a crow’s skeleton,” I would have insincerely said, ‘sure,’ and immediately made plans to deep-six it down the nearest prairie well. But had you said, “here, I have this great book about a brown, mixed race, Native gender-bender girl who learns to see monsters after she kills one and is given a ghost-quest to take down the biggest, scariest, baby-stealing monster of all, but perhaps she’ll have help from some other legends,” I would have been intrigued, especially if you mentioned birds.
So, I’m cleaning out the TBR, and I have this in the library stack, and I have far, far too much of a headache for China’s wordy tricks and politics, so I pick this up, and you can switch me twice with a porcupine’s tail if I didn’t finish it the very same night. Even though–and this is a very big even though–it’s spoken in gawd-awful cowboy talk: “Stunned, she nearly swallowed a fly; in ten years as Monty’s shadow, this was her first invitation to join the wranglers for grub at the ranch house.” With more spitting than a llama convention. But it begins quickly, throwing the hero/ine Nettie right into trouble when a fancily dressed stranger tries to corner her inside the barn of her adopted parents’ tiny farmstead. I might’ve hung it up then and there if Bowden’s writing weren’t so durn good, and the sickle in the stranger’s eye didn’t seem to deter him from carrying on, until Nettie stabs him in the heart with a piece of wood and he turns to sand.
This becomes a watershed moment for her where she becomes brave enough to sneak away from her clearly drunk and abusive Ma and Pa and venture over to the next ranch to seek a job. She adopts a male personality and is starting to fit in when she discovers all sorts of beasties in the night, particularly the red-eyed, fanged ones at the local whorehouse. Soon after, the ranch hands discover a half-dead ancient Native woman who keeps repeating, “Pia Mupitsi,” and from there, Net’s destiny or curse is clear.
It is truly an intriguing and well written book. Net/Nat is annoying, as all teenagers, refusing to communicate when she finally has a learning opportunity and saying, “ain’t” every time she does. But it’s all made plausible by her horrible upbringing that didn’t give her the skills to puzzle out a world in shades of grey, and Bowden stays faithful to that set-up until the end, exposing Net in bits and pieces to the idea that not everything is one thing or another. In the setting of the Special Orphan Trope, she at least commits to the very gradual awakening of the ignorant and stubborn orphan.
But here’s what no doubt caught Past-carol’s attention: there’s some intriguing stuff running through here about gender and sexuality, and as Nettie has to navigate a man’s world by becoming Nat, she starts to learn identity is broader than what she learned from Ma and Pa. I was curious to see if Bowden was going to establish Netti as transgender, but by the end, I don’t think she did. I think Net is uncomfortable with definitions of femaleness and wants the freedom and roles of the male world, but I can see where future books might have her just be a ‘tomboy’ girl–who is, admittedly, attracted to both male and female. At any rate, a fascinating exploration of the topic as Net meets more people and develops relationships.
In some ways the quest is a McGuffin; though she’s forced into it, her journey isn’t really about learning about what she’s after. Rather, the goal is to learn potential skills that could help and engaging in adventures along the way, although, as is typical, part of the strategy seems to be relying on her own Specialness. The landscaped developed is both rich and sparse, and has the dry, arid feeling of the Texas desert, ghost towns and isolated farms included.
There’s a prolonged non-significant side incident on the way that was deeply disturbing and even more triggering than the initial farmyard scene. Seriously, I’m left wondering at the authorial choice; it’s the kind of thing that most definitely means I’d suggest it for the mid-teen crown not an advanced-reader younger one. Bowden is probably trying to make some kind of complex metaphor about sexuality in this book, but it is often contextualized in a bloody, violent framework. Had I been Nettie, I might have chosen, ‘none of the above.’ Which will be interesting to see how gender and sexuality is negotiated, if Bowden continues to remain roughly faithful to her chosen timeline of 1870s.
And while there’s a resolution, it is not an entirely clear one, so negative point for that. Still, the writing was very good, the landscape and atmosphere solidly developed and the Native myths intriguing. I’m sure I’ll pick up the next.