Smoke by Ellen Hopkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Description: Pattyn Von Stratten’s father is dead, and Pattyn is on the run. After far too many years of abuse at the hands of her father, and after the tragic loss of her beloved Ethan and their unborn child, Pattyn is desperate for peace. Only her sister Jackie knows what happened that night, but she is stuck at home with their mother, who clings to normalcy by allowing the truth to be covered up by their domineering community leaders. Her father might be finally gone, but without Pattyn, Jackie is desperately isolated. Alone and in disguise, Pattyn starts a new life, but is it even possible to rebuild a life when everything you’ve known has burned to ash and lies seem far safer than the truth?
My thoughts: This is not Hopkins' strongest work. I didn't read Burned but I had no problem catching up on the basics of the story. This one is told in two voices, both sisters from the first book. It is a continuation of the story which, from what I gather, ended with a big way and needed to be drawn to some kind of conclusion.
There is a clear primary agenda to the book which is to educate the reader about the dangers and statistics of violence upon women. To notch it up, the story includes domestic violence, rape by a "good Mormon boy," a couple of murders which include a hate crime. The secondary agenda is to provide the reader with a perception on far right leanings, both religious and political, that held some truths but were not accurate portrayals. It's a cross between laughable and offensive.
Rather than stay vague, I'll come right out with it. It is a fictitious portrayal of a hypocritical family that is a cross between mainstream Mormon and Fundamentalist Mormon. It seemed like a continuation of the agenda the author had in mind and carried out with the same lack of perspective. At the end of the book, Hopkins admits that she was a victim of domestic violence for years hence, this is a work close to her heart. I get that. I really do. Her characters live the statistics that she quotes. There is teenage sex and pregnancy, rape, denial, etc., etc. It is an important message but it felt preachy rather than flowing like many of her books. She had a point to make and she was going to make it regardless of the story's believability.
So, in all probability, Hopkins' abusive experience was at the hands of a hypocritical Mormon because the slant is very strong. It is reminiscent of the narrow view society had of homosexual men or migrant workers 30 years ago; one dimensional. We characterized gay men as limp wristed, fashion conscious, lisp speaking, feminine men. Our ignorance makes me cringe even writing that sentence. The obvious truth is that sexual preferences come in all packages including a successful lawyer in a business suit with a strong handshake, a college professor, a casino owner or whatever. All shapes and sizes.
The Mormon community in this novel is misconceived, although there is a quick Band-Aid at the end that tries to encompass a little bit of diversity. I'm not arguing that there are hypocritical Mormons who believe practicing birth control is wrong, have no concept of repentance and forgiveness and that once a girl has given her virginity (or had it taken by force), she is ruined or who might cover up a crime in order to protect a member of the church. I am arguing that the vast majority of Mormons that I know can not be so easily pigeon-holed and categorized.
The situation with Caleb, the raper, had too many holes to pursue. In today's society, any bishop that covers up a crime of that magnitude is going to be charged with a felony. Caleb's father would need to hire a good attorney, not only for Caleb, but himself. He is categorized as part of the "the brethren" so I don't know what part of church leadership he is supposed to hold (the bishop had another name). Regardless, he committed felonious crimes including bribery. Want to lose your good standing in the church? Be charged with a serious misdemeanor or felony. Maybe in a different era that would not be the case but in a litigious society which we now live in, there would be a whole lot more attorney appearances.
The really powerful punch for Jackie was at a testimony meeting. First of all, there were some excellent accuracies in the meeting that pretty much made me laugh out loud. I can not deny that I enjoyed it immensely. But then there were just a few off moments that began to occur that by the time Jackie had her big moment, it was too unbelievable. I loved the idea of it but there were problems with the scene that would seem small, innocuous, and trivial but to the Mormon reader, the logistics and then the bishop's response ruined the scene for me.
I think the real issue is that I am disappointed in this book. In previous books, Hopkins has provided interesting and different lifestyles that are explored through at least a couple of perspectives. The characters and their choices are given depth through that exploration. The author has proven to be open-minded although I have seen hints of her view of organized religion in previous books. This time around, though, the characterizations are shallow and underdeveloped.
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