Reviewed in the United States on August 9, 2018
Rating: 5/5 Stars
This review turned into a critical analysis of the book, but I promise it’s worth it. But, heed my SPOILER ALERT. You’ve been warned!
In reading Lila Quintero Weaver’s first foray into children’s fiction, I couldn’t help but think that this would pair well as a close analysis, keeping in mind Gloria Anzaldúa’s border theory. To keep it simple, Anzaldúa believed that immigrants, especially Latinx, and more specifically those of Mexican descent, not just live with the trauma of immigrating across the literal border. The theory also refers to the borders that have been socially constructed, such as racial categorization and sexuality just to mention a few. I’ll apply her border theory to this text because I believe most of the book is a study of said theory.
My Year in the Middle follows the last six weeks of Lu Olivera’s sixth grade in 1970 Red Grove, Alabama. Lu is the child of two Argentinian immigrants, which reflects the author’s own personal experience (this is explained at the end of the book with the Author’s Note). Lu considers herself to be a wallflower and does everything in her power to stay that way. But when the P.E. teacher decides that the girls will start running for the last six weeks of class, Lu becomes the surprise underdog. She outruns the entire class, which had been desegregated only the year before. In classrooms, however, an unspoken rule still divides Lu’s peers between black and white. Seeing as she identifies as neither, she occupies a seat in the middle row. In that way, she straddles a literal border.
“A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants” (Anzaldúa 3).
The way Lu sits in that racial border that has been constructed without her say in the matter, is much in the way she struggles with her identity as a Latina. She fears her Spanish is not too good and that her translation skills are too basic. However, above all else, she seeks acceptance among the white girls in her class. She fears being Othered, but also fears complete assimilation into whiteness. Anzaldúa said: “The only ‘legitimate’ inhabitants [of the borderlands] are those in power, the whites and those who align themselves with whites. Tension grips the inhabitants of the borderlands like a virus. Ambivalence and unrest reside there and death is no stranger” (4). Though death may not be something that’s talked about in the book, ambivalence is something the narrative strides to be against. Lu feels the tension between her black and white classmates, which at times escalates to physical violence. At some point, even Lu’s the victim of physical and verbal violence from an older white student who takes the bus with her. Lu thwarts this by stomping his feet and correcting that she’s Argentinian, but she has to constantly remind herself of something her mother says: “We’re foreigners. We’re not supposed to get involved.”
Thus, Lu becomes an agent of whiteness by not daring to mix with the black kids, even though she identifies more with them and wishes to befriend them. There is a border that she dares not cross, even though it’s not something her parents have taught her. Her parents have taught her to be implicit in white supremacy even though they don’t believe in it. When Lu finally decides to befriend Belinda, a black girl in her class who is also a fantastic runner, she worries about what her white peers might think of such relationship. She doesn’t hide it in public, and she defends Belinda in the face of a racist shopkeeper, but when she’s faced with the questions of her white peers she shies away from the courage she shows. It’s a slow process as she realizes the systems at play in her classroom, and though she has some help from white peers like her friend Sam, her “best friend” Abigail does the opposite and encourages Lu to assimilate.
In fact, most of the characters who wish that Lu assimilate are women. If it’s not Abigail telling Lu to read women’s fashion tips in magazines, it’s Lu’s mom telling her that sports aren’t for girls when Lu expresses her love of running. This is a sentiment that even Anzaldúa expresses: “Culture is made by those in power—men. Males make the rules and laws; women transmit them” (16). By communicating that assimilation into a white heterosexual capitalist patriarchy or assimilation by ignoring your Otherness and that of your peers, Abigail and Lu’s mom transmit the messages of those in power, which Lu then internalizes.
The book mostly consists of Lu unlearning these internalized feelings and the text does so deftly and with the innocence of a sixth grader who’s only starting to realize the depth of US’s injustices. A good evolution is the image of Lu’s sister, Marina, who’s a college student as well as a volunteer for the Brewer campaign. This campaign is another subplot that’s almost always occurring in the background of Lu’s life. At moments she believes she wouldn’t be affected by the campaign, which is against rampant white supremacist ex-governor George Wallace and desegregationist Albert Brewer. But the book takes you on a sort-of ride-along as she goes to a Wallace rally because Abigail just wants to participate in a cake walk. As Lu feels horrible when the speeches start and the Confederate flags start flying, she bargains with herself and others that she only went to appease Abigail be a part of something with her white peers.
Lu doesn’t tell her black friends or her own family that she attended the rally, knowing it would be met with scorn, which means that she knew it was wrong. When her social studies teacher asks her to write an essay about her experience at the rally for bonus points, she does so, and gets full points while feeling guilty. That guilt is useless, however, seeing as it resembles the white guilt of her peers who want to rebel against the white supremacy in place at their school, but won’t do anything productive with it. It’s when Lu uses her guilt to defend her black friends that it becomes more productive.
At a white student’s birthday party, Lu becomes the target of harassment from her peers for being friends with the black students, especially Belinda. White fear comes bubbling up, and it’s only perforated when Lu finally owns up to her own prejudices and by calling out her peers’ racism in the process.
When Brewer loses the race, the sentiments explored in the book felt all too familiar. As the Brewer supporters start mourning the loss, the white Wallace supporters become even more assertive of their desire for white supremacy. The feelings paralleled the days after the election of Tr*mp. Keep in mind, the book is set less than 50 years ago, and the sentiments of white supremacy and segregationist laws are still present in the US. It is at that point that Lu’s reality comes crashing down on her.
At school, she finally decides to sit with the black students, eschewing the created border of the middle row, the false neutrality she thought she could keep. Lu finally overcomes “the tradition of silence” that Anzaldúa wished to do in regards of the censuring of her identity as a Chicana (59). And though, again, Lu isn’t a Chicana, it’s the best turning point for her as she accepts her Otherness and doesn’t give into white supremacy. In fact, she goes to a white man in power (the principal) to defend one of her black peers, who’s attacked by a white student in class.
Lu is constantly subverting the expectations set for her as the book moves along. She shows growth in the most hopeful and honest way. She’s constantly deconstructing the set default, though not always by herself, like in the scene in which Belinda is at her house and they’re going through the magazines that used to be Abigail’s. Belinda points out that there’s one black model for the overwhelmingly white publication, but she doesn’t worry because at her house they receive beauty magazines for black women. Lu can’t help but wonder that there’s no such thing for girls like her, girls from Latin America, and that she doubted she would ever find a black-haired model with brown skin. This scene is a short one, yet it puts into focus what has been set as the standard for beauty: Eurocentric features. It also helps as a way for Lu to deconstruct such standards, and to question why those are the default.
“It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. [...] At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once [...] Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go a different route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react” (Anzaldúa 78-79).
And indeed, Lu acts. Most of the book is her reacting to injustice, and by the end she’s acting and choosing her own path. She chooses herself, she chooses her real friends, and her family. She also chooses running, with her entire family supporting her and her dad and sister helping her train before the big competition (a Field Day). It becomes a celebration of Lu’s identity as her parents shout encouragement in Spanish as she goes. Those screams allow her to win, seeing as her competition, an older white girl, gets distracted and falls on a pothole. This final scene settles the border paradox within Lu. She’s able to celebrate both her passion for running and her identity as a Latina, all while celebrating the friends she has. There’s no indication she wants to seek reunification with the white peers who turned their backs on her, or that she wants to seek some sort of revenge.
At the end, Lu is happy with forging her own path. She’s finally unafraid to embrace her actions, and leave behind the created borders. There are new borders, but she doesn’t wish to acknowledge them at the moment the book is finished. She’s proud of her growth, and so was I.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Quintero Weaver, Lila. My Year in the Middle. Candlewick Press, 2018.
An eARC was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! (this is why I couldn’t directly cite from the source book, since ARCs undergo a lot of changes before publishing)