Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Olsen, The End (2010)

Nora Olsen, The End: Five Queer Kids Save The World. Prizm Books, 2010. Pp. 270. ISBN 1610401166. $13.95.

Reviewed by Martha Hubbard

The End is a first novel by Nora Olsen, whose goal is “to write fun books that anyone can enjoy”, but she especially wants “LGBT teens to be able to see themselves in [her] books”. It is published by Prizm Books and is young adult science fiction of interest to LGBT teens. Five queer teenagers receive magic amulets that can help them to save the world from nuclear disaster. They must learn to trust each other and work together in order to accomplish this. Ms Olsen tells an engrossing story that is well plotted and moves briskly along to a satisfying and believable resolution.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a semi-retired English teacher. I keep trying to retire and circumstances and importunate School Directors keep pulling me back. Currently I am teaching a few groups of 9th and 11th classes in an academically oriented gymnasium in Estonia. My students are the target age for YA fiction, which is why, when I was offered a chance to review some YA novels, I jumped at it, choosing The End: Five Queer Kids Save the World. My kids are confronting many of the same issues as the young people in Nora Olsen’s delightful book plus one more: they are all nominally homophobic—they express their peers’ attitudes towards gays while at the same time reaching out to hear and question what I think on the subject.

Estonia and the other two Baltic Republics, Latvia and Lithuania, had been for fifty years subsumed into the Soviet Union. In addition to its multitude of other faults, the Soviet Union was one of the most bigoted and racist political entities of the post-war period. It is a sad and frustrating fact that even today, Russia is continuing to institutionalize and promote rabid and vicious gay-bashing policies.
A law taking effect next week in St. Petersburg, Russia, will impose a $16,000 fine on anyone spreading “the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors,” RIA Novosta reports. The fine could be as high as $160,000 on legal entities for the promotion of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgender practices among minors, the Russian news agency reports. The new legislation, formally signed by the regional governor Sunday, effectively outlaws any Gay Pride events.
From USA Today, March 12, 2012

I’m happy to be able to report that Estonia isn’t actually as rigid as its neighbours to the east and south. Several people in my town are openly gay and an annual Gay Pride Parade is held without disturbance in Tallinn.

My students’ attitudes are the product of their parent’s conditioning. Deep within them are the remnants of the Soviet-sanctioned fear of, ‘The Different Ones’. I don’t think they like this and on some level know that something needs to change. Again and again, in the six weeks I have been teaching them, the same questions come up: ‘What do I think of gays? Of same sex marriage... of gays as parents?’ It feels as if they are trying to reassure themselves that one pillar of difference is consistent. So, would I read this book for these students? I wish I could, but not yet. Maybe down the road, one of the luckier ones will have a wise auntie who’ll buy a favourite niece a copy. I hope so, because it is a warm and charming read for young people.

As the title says, the end of the world (as we know it*) is upon us. Sometime in the early 21st century, 2014 to be exact, Goddess Muldoona, the Grim, is having a mega-hissy fit because her beloved consort, Gog, aka the God of the Cave, has thrown her over for Thorina—as if his obsession with humans was not bad enough.
She hated Thorina and all of Gog’s other dismal sidekicks. They were compatriots on the side of Anti-Evil, or ‘Good’ as they liked to call it. But most of all, she hated Gog. She loathed Gog more than anything in the world, more than puppies, flowers or happiness.
Instinctively she knew that the best way to get Gog’s attention would be to harm his precious humans. Why not trick them into starting a nuclear war that will make the Earth uninhabitable? That would definitely catch his eye.

Unbeknownst to her (isn’t that a wonderful word?) Gog, either anticipating her eruption or just for fun—we never learn which—has been distributing magical amulets to selected humans, which can give the wearer extraordinary powers—powers that will allow them to take on Muldoona.

We meet these five queer kids for the first time in 2009, at the beginning of the book.

High up in the rigging of an 18th century schooner. Skilly, currently known as Scott Amberiotis, had been given an amulet to save his life. His brother Orf had found the original Amulet of Eternal Life, 5000 years earlier in a cave. Gog appearing to Orf had cautioned him, that although the amulet conferred eternal life, once removed, would never work again for the donor. Orf removed it to save his brother’s life, Skilly recovered from his wound but his brother died shortly afterward from an infected cut. Since then Skilly had wandered the earth, never dying, growing richer and richer from knowledge gained, never appearing to grow older and often painfully lonely. His lovers of both sexes, sooner or later, must always die.

Next we meet Marly Ennis, aged ten, daughter of a crazed, born-again Christian mother and an absent father. She and her slow-witted brother are made to spend Christmas 2009 passing out Christian tracts. Four years later, openly gay, bitter, angry and out of control, unwanted by the aunt who had received custody after her mother was judged unfit, she appears again in Juvie Court and is sentenced by a biased, homophobic judge to detention in the toughest juvenile prison in the system, Spofford. Because her transfer to Spofford had been delayed she is still in the Manhattan Detention Centre when Muldoona’s nuclear revenge begins. Locked in the day room and abandoned by the guards, the prisoners are facing certain death, when a grey cat with yellow eyes, Bast the Goddess of Cats, appears and presents Marly with an amulet that allows her to walk through walls.

Although all the major characters identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bi—and in one case possibly trans—frequently it seems as if their gender preferences are only one of the challenging issues they must face. For example, Julia and Vikki are school mates in Manhattan. Julia is an orphan and lives with her grandmother. Other people want to feel sorry for her or try to patronise her. She gets irritated when they call her an orphan, something she hates. She’d rather be raised by her wise old gran than most of their parents.

Her classmate Vikki had earlier that year been hospitalised. She was seriously anorexic. But her real problem is her mother who promotes Vikki’s negative body image in vicious and abusive ways. Once when had Julia stayed to dinner at Vikki’s.
Julia was almost afraid to break the silence and ask for a second baked potato.
“Yeah, me too, Mom,” Vikki said.
“ Vik, you ate all those pretzels earlier! You’re getting too fat,” her mom said.
Julia could not believe her ears. Vikki had never been really fat at any time. Was her mother trying to kill her?
“No, I’m not, Mom. Leave me alone.”
“All I’m saying is you could lose just a little weight.”
Julia isn’t the only one to wonder if Vikki’s mother is insane.

Time passes—and then it’s 2014

Soon after this the girls drift apart when Julia drops out of school to join the Urban Corps—a kind of home-grown peace corp. She is kicked out mid-year for refusing to remove the special necklace that Astrid, a Norwegian girl had given her at camp. They had fallen hard for each other but only progressed to a few kisses and writing crappy love poems. Julia didn’t know why, but she just knew she couldn’t remove the necklace.

Feeling like a failure and depressed, Julia agrees to her Gran’s suggestion that she finish high school at Dunleavy Prep, her grandmother’s alma mater. Unhappy and unpopular she signs up for a spring trip to Amsterdam.

Julia is exploring this fabulous city with her classmates when Muldoona’s fiendish plot begins. They are in KFC when news of the bombings reaches them. In the ensuing chaos, only Julia and one other girl, Ginger seem to be thinking clearly. Turned away from every house by the terrified Dutch, they are at last admitted into the Anne Frank house by the elderly caretaker.

After several days trapped inside Julia begins to have visions; she can ‘see’ a rescue boat near the sea shore. She and Ginger decide to make a break for it. Exiting the house, they hear a cat meowing. Following the sound they discover an abandoned houseboat and Biddy, the cat. Sensing the owner has fled, they commandeer the houseboat and head towards the sea. The escape is on. How they are rescued by Skilly, return to America, meet up with Marly and Vikki and return to the worst year of their lives, 2009, to save the world are the substance of a wonderful and sobering adventure story.

These characters are all, with the possible exception of the self-absorbed Skilly, delightful, engrossing, challenging young people. When Julia compares Gog to an eighth grade teacher, I found myself wanting to elbow the pompous pedantic Mr Scubala aside and draw her into one of my classes. I remember teachers like that only too well.

We learn how Barney who said he was a god gave Ginger her amulet. She has the furthest to go in terms of growth. Bisexual and out for what ever she can get, she breaks Julia’s heart and betrays the group, but ultimately provides their salvation.

Marly, forced to masquerade as a boy when they return to 2009, begins to consider that this is in fact her true nature. Vikki is still Vikki, but she gains the inner strength to deal with her mother and her body-image issues. Only Skilly who cannot give up control of his amulet, comes to an unhappy end.

There’s a lot of adventure, an amazing collection of ideas and references and a wonderful good time packed within the pages of this 267 page book. So, if you’re a teen looking for a good read, or an auntie or grandpa looking for something to give a favourite niece or nephew, I heartily recommend The End: Five Queer Kids Save the World.

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ivanova said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed my book! Thanks so much for choosing to review it.

I was also very interested in what you had to share about youth in Estonia. It was very thought-provoking. Sounds like it's a good thing they have a caring and progressive teacher like yourself.

In the sequel, which I have been working on, Marly meets Marly's mentor and friend Golenchev again, but he is younger and is in 1980's Belarus. (Not much of a spoiler: there is more time travel!) Marly is hurt by Golenchev's transphobia. I have been struggling with this section since I don't want to focus too much on a gender non-conforming teen being rejected, because I feel that theme has been covered in YA, and I want to keep the story peppy and affirming. But a rejection has to happen briefly for various plot reasons. What you said about the legacy of bigotry from the Soviet Union gave me a great idea to solve my problem! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Nora,
I'm so pleased that you liked my review and that it provided a bit of useful insight. I love reading and I love reviewing, but I want to do more than just write, I liked this book because, yaddata, yaddata...
The real world that teenagers have to grow up in is very complex and as writers, I think we need to address all angles of the issues while at the same time telling a good story. I'll be looking out for the sequel.