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Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant published on No Comments on Sexually active teenage girls are repulsive; Abenaki Indians are disposable; and “sex changes” are humiliating punishment: lessons from The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant

Please note that this discussion of Joanna Wiebe’s Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant contains critical examination of huge spoilers. Don’t read further if you want to maintain the mystery. Read further if you want detail on how this otherwise promising debut fails disappointingly.

 

Because people apparently just can’t get enough of exclusive New England prep schools with questionable secrets, Joanna Wiebe enters the fray with The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant, first book in a YA trilogy. As the title indicates, our protagonist, Anne Merchant, begins her junior year of high school at a boarding school on a Maine island, Cania Christy. Anne quickly detects that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark Maine. Sneaking around, illicit friendship with the only teen girl in the island town, sinister headmasters, attraction to an apparently unaging boy, and supernatural entanglements ensue.

 

Wiebe has a great concept here [SPOILERS!] — namely, that this boarding school contains dead students who have been given a two-year lease on life through the sacrifices their parents have made to Mephistopheles [yep, the demon best known for dealing with Faustus]. The Big V for which all students vie so ardently is not, as Anne and readers first think, the status of valedictorian, but the status of vivification, or, more precisely, revivification. One student per class wins the chance at returning to full life. One achieves this goal¬† by embodying one’s PT, or life goal, to perfection — ruthless, cutthroat competition and betrayal encouraged. This set-up makes for a fascinating moral sfumato in which no one is pure — or even good, really — and everyone justifies their selfish actions with a passion born of desperation.

 

Not only does Wiebe have a promising idea rolling around in here, but she also has a pretty snappy style. Anne’s first-person narration, while initially confused, contains a significant amount of incredulity, curiosity, and sarcasm at the increasingly weird developments in her life. Sure, she makes assumptions and mistakes, plus she suffers the requisite crush on the aloof bad boy, but her Alice-like determination to make sense of her off-the-wall experiences allows her to be a sympathetic proxy for the reader. The plot remains goofy and over-the-top, but at least someone [i.e., Anne] besides the reader realizes that.

 

High school qua purgatory could be awesome in the right writer’s hands, but I’m sad to report that Wiebe can’t quite hack it…hence my subject line. The intriguing premise, combined with a kind of silly plot and a rather smart-mouthed protagonist, can’t hold up against the venomous misogyny and racism undergirding the whole project.

 

Virulent misogyny shows up first in the portrayal of four popular girls, a clique headed by one Harper. Harper and associates wear expensive, fashionable clothes and accessories. They carefully style their hair and makeup. They pursue sexual activities with fellow male students [because they’re all heterosexual, of course] and young teachers alike. A minor character tells Anne that all four of them have the same PT — to “maximize their desirability” — so they band together so that they can keep a close eye on each other, the better to compete against each other. Though I have summarized Harper and associates in factual, value-neutral terms, Wiebe, through Anne, describes them solely with negative judgment. In her eyes [and words], they’re nasty, bitchy, slutty skanks, in contrast to Anne, who is a virgin who has only kissed a corpse. Madonna/whore dichotomy, anyone?

 

Virulent misogyny — that is, transmisogyny — shows up second in the discussion of the tuitions Anne’s fellow students’ parents have paid so that they can attend Cania Christy. In other words, every student’s parents have promised something significant to Mephistopheles so that their children have a chance at living again. Harper’s dad, for example, promised to indelibly pollute the world’s water with twelve oil spills for which the cures would be worse than the oil. Pilot’s father confessed all his adulterous affairs in public, ruining his political future. Someone else’s dad becomes homeless. And someone else’s dad [don’t remember who — cant be arsed to check], a famous director, had a “sex change.” Yep, you heard that right — Wiebe puts a gender confirmation surgery in the same category as irreparably ruining the ocean and torpedoing one’s promising career. In other words, the other “tuition payments” with which she associates the director’s “sex change” involve humiliation, damage, and general misery. Thus gender confirmation surgery becomes, by extension, wretched and disgusting.

 

Wiebe’s portrayal of gender confirmation surgery makes no sense. For a significant number of trans people who choose medical and/or hormonal transitions, these bodily changes can promote a sense of relief, happiness, and satisfaction. However, Wiebe equates gender confirmation surgery with ecological devastation and adultery, thus characterizing medical transitions as negative, disruptive, and revolting. Wiebe’s portrayal of gender confirmation surgery intimates that trans women are pathetic and icky. No, actually, it’s transmisogyny that’s icky.

 

Finally, along with all Wiebe’s horrible misogyny and transphobia comes the racism, exemplified by Abenaki teen Molly Watso. As the only townie Anne’s age, she is forbidden to fraternize with Anne because of a secret deal her ancestors made with Mephistopheles. Molly talks to Anne anyway, giving her some clues on their mystery surrounding Cania Christy, encouraging her to spy and investigate, even lending her a glammy ensemble for a masque at the school. Just as it looks like Anne might not be the Sole Exceptional Virtuous Woman on an Island of Evil Whores, she inadvertently contributes to Molly’s death, the horror of which prompts Anne to really get to the bottom of the secrets at her school. Yes, folks, apparently the Native American was only there to facilitate the white heroine’s enlightenment.

 

Speaking of Abenakis, I have more general problems with Wiebe’s portrayal of Indians, as they behave in culturally inappropriate ways.¬† For one thing, they’re making deals with a distinctly Christian demon, Mephistopheles. In the context of Wiebe’s story, where the Abenaki explicitly state that they follow supposedly Abenaki spiritual ways, why the hell are they dealing with Mephistopheles? It would make more sense for Abenaki characters who follow Abenaki religious beliefs to deal with a being from their spiritual beliefs. But no — Wiebe’s “Abenaki” behave just like all the WASPs, messing around with some demon from Christian mythology who should, by all rights, be irrelevant to the “Abenaki” characters’ existence.

Beyond this logical failure in her depiction of “Abenaki” characters, Wiebe writes them doing things that are just plain wrong. In the worst offense, the Indians perform cremation ceremonies for the deceased, including Molly. My cursory research indicates no cremation involved in traditional Abenaki funerary practices. See, for example, the detailed description of memorial customs of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenakis; these practices include either burial of the corpse in the ground or the placement of the corpse on an exposed platform to decompose in the woods. There is no cremation whatsoever. The only thing anyone is burning is offerings of tobacco. Again, I’m not arguing that all Abenaki everywhere practice burial and that no Abenaki ever practices cremation, only that burial of the dead seems to be an Abenaki cultural institution in a way that cremation is not. This laziness typifies Wiebe’s larger problem of bigoted shorthand — in which sexually assertive girls are automatically evil, gender confirmation surgery is reprehensible and gross, Indians are glorified local color without any authenticity, and any discerning reader is ultimately distracted by the author’s problematic assumptions.

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