Here again, I feel a certain divisiveness in my reactions to a book that I’ve recently read. I’m desperate to talk about it, but I’m a bit wary of actually recommending it. I think the former impulse is winning out, however. I picked up A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, $17.99) super excited to read a new YA title, especially one that deals with gay and lesbian themes. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the various ways that authors have approached this topic, especially since we finally seem to have gotten over the ‘traumatic coming out’ narrative rut.
Ask the Passengers contains a very interesting protagonist. Astrid had a strong narrative voice, but was also somewhat detached from her life and environment. I liked that, because I often feel that way, like I’m watching, but not really participating. One of the recurring scenes in the book is of Astrid laying on the picnic table in the back yard, sending love and questions to the passengers of the planes flying above. Again, this concept felt incredibly relatable. I love traveling, because I like experiencing new places and cultures, but I like traveling, because I like moving. There was something intriguing about a high-school girl, stagnant in her home town, thinking about the people on the move above her. Her own struggles with the confinement of living in a small town, where she does not identify with the dominant way of thinking, were palpable in these scenes. Again, I connected with her there. I also connected with her resistance to the pressure pushing her in a direction that was not her direction. I felt the exhaustion of fighting back, and appreciated that she stayed the course.
What I did not like was the melodramatic trauma of dealing with her sexuality. Her confusion was normal, but overdone. Her girlfriend was pushy and super annoying. Her ‘gay best friends’ struck me as rather ignorant and irritating. Finally, the response, even from this small town, was so negative, it just didn’t feel very realistic to me. Maybe it would have if the book was set in the early 1990s, but the cultural references indicate that it is set in the 2010s. I’m not delusional and I realize that homophobia still exists, but the book seemed really imbalanced. It was as if she, and her friends, were the first kids to come out in this town ever. Highly unlikely.
What I did appreciate, however, was Astrid’s distinction between “lying” and “not telling everyone everything, just because they asked”. As she works through her own sexual orientation, she does so internally. Thinking. Critiquing. Speculating. Her friends, her parents, and even her girlfriend, all demand that she ‘come out’, ‘tell the world’, ‘tell the truth’. When accused of lying about herself, she tells her best friend, “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. . . . Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?” This conversation really struck a chord with me, because I firmly believe that it is one of these crucial aspects of teenagers that adults often ignore. Teenagers are accused of secrecy, sullenness, being cagey, or rude, but I’ve always felt that there is a larger developmental process occurring. I think that teens are starting to understand that they are separate human beings, with their own thoughts, and that they start to develop a sense of privacy. A sense of their right to privacy and that they can have thoughts that they don’t share with anyone. Or that they themselves can chose who they share their personal thoughts with.
Insofar as Ask the Passengers deals with teen identity, philosophy, and relationships, it is a good book, and one I would recommend. The lesbian plot line, however, was forced, unnecessary, and not remotely believable. While I commend the author for attempting to augment YA LBGT lit, unfortunately I think this book took a huge step backwards in that area.