Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson

The idea of the "preacher's kid" has always intrigued me - they're kids who end up being defined almost entirely by their parents' role in the community. Even more so than the rest of us (churchgoing or not), they're expected to uphold a certain standard of behavior constantly, no matter how they feel about their parents' job.

Saving MaddieSaving Maddie is the second book about a preacher's kid I've read this year - the first being Donut Days for the Nerds Heart YA contest. Between the two books, we see three of the possible iterations of the preachers kid: Emma is a good kid who disagrees with her parents, while Saving Maddie's narrator, Joshua, is a goody two-shoes and the titular Maddie is the rebel who has apparently turned her back on everything her father teaches.

Joshua Wynn is a good kid, the quintessential preacher's kid. He's active in church activities to the point of excluding all others. As youth leader of the church's youth group, he listens to the ideas of his peers before issuing a verdict that will fall in line with his father's beliefs. Joshua isn't always sure his father is right, but striking out on his own isn't an option.

Until Maddie returns to town.

Joshua and Maddie were best friends growing up, while her father was the associate pastor in Joshua's father's church. When she moved away in middle school, they swore to keep in contact, but eventually Maddie stopped returning Joshua's letters, and he stopped trying to reach out.

But now she's back, dressed in short, tight black dresses; wearing purple lipstick; and going by her full name, Madeline. It's quite a change from the quiet girl Joshua knew way back when, but deep down, Joshua knows she's still just Maddie. So despite the disapproving stares of the parishioners Joshua starts hanging out with Madeline, convinced he can "save" her from her fallen ways.

As Joshua and Madeline's friendship is rekindled, Joshua learns more about his friend's new life than he ever really wanted to know. She drinks, smokes, and fools around with guys much older than her. And worse, according to Madeline her dad is a Grade A jerk, and Joshua is concerned that his abuse might go well beyond verbal insults. As his parents worry that Madeline is a poor influence on him, Joshua openly defies them for the first time, and continues to spend time with Madeline despite their commands that he end the relationship immediately. Joshua doesn't know where exactly this relationship will end up (he's kind of hoping to make it at least to second base), but he does know that now, more than ever, Maddie needs him.

Joshua and Madeline have both been labeled by the time we first meet them - Joshua as a good guy and Madeline as the fallen woman, and we're reminded of this several times explicitly by the way people talk and act around the pair. When out at a party several youth group members are attending, they try to hide their drinks from Joshua, afraid he's such a good boy that he'll report their illicit activities to their parents. On the other hand, everyone immediately assumes the worst about Madeline, treating her as a sex object and a temptress to the surrounding young men (as if it doesn't take two to tango!). Even as Joshua and Madeline are labeled as opposites, they also react to these labels in opposite ways: Joshua is constantly trying to break free of his good guy image, while Madeline has heartbreakingly accepted that her only worth lies in sex.

That part of Madeline's character kind of bothered me, though I've known enough girls who feel the same way to know it's totally true. I guess it bothered me because I know it's not true, that no person should be defined by her sexuality, and no one deserves to be treated poorly because of her past sexual experiences. Joshua feels the same way (though he doesn't articulate it quite that way), but poor Madeline just can't see her own worth, which made the last few chapters very difficult to read as Madeline constantly beats up on herself.

Also horrible: Madeline's father. Holy crap. We never actually meet the guy in the text, but even if he's only half as bad as Madeline describes him, he's a terrible, horrible man who has no business being a parent or a preacher. In April, the New York Times asked if YA lit has a parent problem, and I argued that the article's examples were terrible, as the parents cited that I was familiar with were struggling parents, but by no means bad ones. You want bad parents? Look here and in Say the Word and King of the Screw Ups.

Huh. Just realized all of my "terrible parent" examples are actually terrible fathers. Am I just missing the books with abusive mothers? Dirty Little Secrets is the only abusive mother I can think of recently, and for some reason she doesn't pop into my mind immediately when I think "terrible parent." A bit of bias on my part, perhaps? Or is it just because the mother is dead when that book starts and her abuse may have been brought about by mental illness?

Complicated stuff.

The book itself deals with lots of complicated issues in thoughtful ways. Aside from Madeline's sexuality, there is also, of course, lots and lots of thoughts on religion, specifically protestant Christianity. I really enjoyed how Johnson showed Madeline still considers herself religious, even if she thinks organized religious institutions are bunk. Joshua also has a lot to think about, as much of his feelings on faith are tied up in his feelings about his parents.
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