When I was scanning debut books coming out in 2015, When Reason Breaks by Cindy Rodriguez stood out to me because of its promise of connecting Emily Dickinson's poetry to contemporary high school characters (bonus; the two main characters were Latino).
The book completely delivered on its intriguing promise (and deepened my appreciation for Dickinson). I loved seeing teens relating to a 19th century poet as they dealt with the turmoil in their lives. Also, one of my favorite scenes in the book is where one of the girls, dragged along to a party by her friends, finds an empty room and hides there to read a book until she's found by another girl who's also escaping the party scene.
Since this is a Throwback Thursday post, here's a picture of me (on the right) "partying" with my best friend in high school. We went to a few high school parties together, but usually we had more fun heading off on our own, instead of hanging out drinking and smoking. One of our favorite "parties for two" was heading off camping together.
Here's a little more about the two girls in When Reason Breaks:
Elizabeth was goth and prickly and smart - and I don't usually like angry characters but I liked her because she was so much more than her anger. In an early scene, Elizabeth goes into her new English class ready to judge the teacher. After Mrs. Diaz's impassioned introduction to the power of words and poetry and Emily Dickinson in particular, Elizabeth thinks:
You impressed me and you amused me. Let’s see how you handle this.
Then she hands in her assignment which she purposefully made as controversial as possible, to test the teacher. That's Elizabeth: testy and distrustful but somehow appealing, too.
Emily, the other main character, was the girl who strives to please everyone and fit in and meet expectations, until it crushes her into depression. You could see how she longed to stay connected with her friends...
Emily focused on Sarah’s hand wrapped around hers, remembering how they used to clasp hands as they sat side by side on the playground swings. They’d see how high they could go without getting out of sync and disconnected.
... and yet she couldn't handle the pressure of friends anymore, either, on top of the pressure from her parents and school.
My favorite parts were the scenes with Elizabeth and Emily together. They aren't friends, they hang with different crowds, and they rub each other wrong - but they also get each other too. Here's my favorite scene, where Emily finds a room to hide in, at a party, and read, and Elizabeth happens upon her in her hiding spot and asks her if she's okay.
Elizabeth: “Lying’s the worst. People freak out – I mean, like screaming, punching, crying kind of freak out – when they’re lied to. Like when someone asks, Are you okay? and she says I’m fine. And the person asks, are you sure? And she says yes, leave me alone. Lies, all lies.”
“You’re right. I lied to you that day in the bathroom,” said Emily. “But you lied to me in the locker room.”
“Maybe, but let me finish my story. Now, if this girl told the truth, she’d say, “I’m thinking about dropping out of high school and joining the circus because I’m pretty sure shoveling elephant sh*t would be better than sticking around here.” But instead, she lies to make it easy on people. And you know what? It doesn’t matter because they know she’s lying and she still gets labeled the trouble child who needs fixing and everyone becomes focused on her instead of the lie that set her off in the first place.”
With wide eyes, Emily asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Elizabeth smiled and sucked hard on her straw.
“You’re lying,” Emily said with a grin.
“Maybe, but this isn’t about me.”
Emily's depression kind of tiptoed around the story in a way that caught me off gaurd - but at the same time felt genuine, because that's what depression does. It often doesn't have a good, justifiable reason for its presence. It sneaks up on you; it's secretive and it disguises its destructiveness.
Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she as in an epic battle? Why did every snarky remark become a festering wound? Why did she always feel like she was pinned to the mat and crushed under their weight?
Elizabeth struggled with a different kind of brokenness. From one her letters to her English teacher, Mrs Diaz:
I knew then something deep down inside of me was broke. It was the tiniest of cracks, like a pebble hitting a windshield on the highway – plink. No big deal, right? Wait a while. The crack will deepen and spread and permanently damaged the once-strong glass.
So, WWEDW? What Would Emily Dickinson Write?
Maybe this: “I felt a funeral, in my Brain. And then a Plank in Reason broke / And I dropped down, and down”
Did Emily Dickinson pull away from the world because it was easier and safer to hide than face it all? Or did something inside of her crack?
Despite all this, somehow the story managed to stay strong instead of wallowing in darkness.
Turns out, Dickinson also wrote a lot about life and beauty and joy and love. These are the poems she reads now. “Unable are the Loved to die / For love is immortality…”
I noticed how the two girls share the same initials as Emily Dickinson, but make sure you check out the author’s note at the end to see how all the characters in the story are close mirrors of Emily Dickinson, her family and friends.