Balzer & Bray/Harperteen
May 9, 2017
HarperCollins provided a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I have to begin with a confession of bias. I read Julie Murphy’s novel Dumplin’ last year, and I trust her as an author. The synopsis of Ramona Blue dredges up ghosts of bi-erasure and sad queer girls, but despite that, I went in fearless, believing Murphy would deliver something that was, at the very least, respectful. I was not disappointed; in fact, I am overjoyed.
Ramona lives in Eulogy, Mississippi, a small town still experiencing fallout from Hurricane Katrina. While her father works almost nonstop to keep their family afloat, 17-year-old Ramona feels that her worth is tied to her ability to contribute financially, and to how well she can look after her pregnant older sister, Hattie. Ramona is quite sure of herself; she has long been out as gay, has several part time jobs, and she knows she’ll be there for Hattie when the baby comes. However, when her childhood friend Freddie moves back to Eulogy and coaxes Ramona to train in competitive swimming, she falls for the sport—and the boy.
The key to my joy and this novel’s success is Ramona’s characterization. Issue books sometimes sacrifice stronger characterization for the sake of focusing on the issue in question. Yes, there is limited space in a novel, but the limitations of publishing do not excuse the heavy presence of tropes. Reading numerous books in which the protagonist’s coming out—or being outed—is the obvious climax of the story gets tedious.
Ramona is different. She has a loving and affirming group of friends, including Saul and Ruth, who are also queer. Her mother believes her sexual identity is “just a phase,” but is largely out of the picture, whereas her father and sister are accepting and supportive. Furthermore, the conflict in the novel doesn’t rely solely on her feelings for Freddie, but is rather tied to the role she plays for her family as a financial and emotional support. Ramona is too sure of herself, or rather of the person she believes she must be, and lets that surety complicate her relationships in potentially unhealthy ways. Often, it’s the relationship between the two sisters that takes center stage, as Hattie’s growing stomach and penchant for sleeping in Ramona’s bed emphasize how much space she takes up in Ramona’s life.
Murphy further fills out Ramona’s character by giving her a realistic sexuality. The policing of female sexuality that occurs in real life unsurprisingly carries over into YA, although there have been several new releases in the last few years like Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Juliet Takes a Breath that buck this trend. Boys are allowed lust and desire outside of relationships far more frequently than girls, but Murphy lets Ramona be a sexual being, regardless of her relationship status. Ramona reflects on her experiences with sex and attraction, and—gasp!—masturbates. Furthermore, Murphy never shames her characters; Hattie is not stigmatized for her pregnancy or her use of birth control, abortion gets a casual mention, and flings occur without dire consequence. It’s refreshing.
As Ramona navigates her feelings for Freddie, she often falls back on Ruth to discuss sexuality, and each of their conversations is validating. Their friendship as queer girls is a bright, shining gem rarely seen in YA literature, AKA the strange land where queer girl “friends” inevitably become girlfriends. Murphy seems to be calling out this trope; Ruth and Ramona joke about being the only two out gay girls in their town—there are closeted queer girls who cameo—but they create a space together in which Ramona can safely question what she feels without denying or belittling other identities. Ruth is a clear side character, present largely to help carve out this space for Ramona, but the moments they share together are sweet and genuine.
Sexuality aside, Murphy also carefully considers how race and racism affect her characters. Freddie is black and experiences several micro- and macro-aggressions, ranging from a drunk white girl telling him she’s never dated a black boy, to tersely explaining to Ramona that breaking into and swimming in a stranger’s pool is safe for her white friends, but puts him at risk of violence. Ramona has to grapple with her ignorance, and see how Freddie’s blackness means white adults don’t view him as “just a kid.”
Murphy also takes care to mention the race of new characters in their initial descriptions. This tactic may seem simple but the effect is important; instead of being allowed to default to white, the reader’s mind creates a multi-racial cast of characters in both the foreground and background of the novel.
If I am being completely honest, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous to write this review. Murphy has written a novel that I wasn’t waiting for because I didn’t expect it to ever exist. As a queer person who doesn’t experience a stable identity, and uses the labels like “queer” and “bisexual” to give me space to experience fluidity, I never expected to find something close to my own experience in a relatively mainstream YA novel. Her feelings for Freddie shake up Ramona’s sense of self, but she allows herself to simply explore what she is feeling, and it’s a beautiful journey to go along. I encourage readers like myself to try and set aside your nerves and just let yourself read. It’s all right; Julie Murphy’s got you.
Ramona Blue is now out on the shelves, so check your local independent bookstore, if you’ve got one! You can also read a preview of the novel on Bustle.