Book Review: Burn Baby Burn, Meg Medina (2016)

March 7th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Burn that mother down.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for domestic violence.)

The bruise on my neck is compact and the color of liver. It’s right at my voice box, too, so when I stand at the mirror, it looks like a bullet hole to the throat.

Mima pretends she doesn’t see it.

We’re in a secret club together. All those times I never asked about her wrists, about the fleshy part of her thigh, even the faint circle of teeth at her cheeks all those years ago after one of Hector’s tantrums. More recently, the days she uses my CoverGirl without my permission.

All too often, anti-rape campaigns focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Under the guise of “helpful advice,” women are told what we can do to avoid being raped: Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Don’t take your eyes off the drink you bought yourself. Don’t get drunk in public. Don’t drink in public, period. Don’t walk home alone. Don’t walk the streets at night, period. Sometimes the advice is downright contradictory: Wear pants, since they make rape slightly more difficult. But don’t wear skinny jeans because, in the event that you are raped, no one will believe you. (Skinny jeans are so difficult to peel off that your rapist must have had your cooperation and thus your consent.)

At best, these “tips” are given with good intentions and provide a false sense of control over a chaotic world. At worst, they’re a crass attempt to police the behavior of women – for our own protection, of course. *

Perhaps most alarmingly, these types of rape prevention campaigns contribute to the stereotype of the rapist as a menacing stranger, lurking in the bushes or an alleyway, just waiting for the perfect victim to come along; an animal prowling the urban jungle. Someone evil and unknowable. An anomaly.

In reality, 82% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. They are our partners, our dates, our friends, our coworkers, and our classmates. How does walking home in a group help to prevent rape when the rapist is waiting for us at home?

This was at the front of my mind as I read Burn Baby Burn. It’s 1977, and seventeen-year-old Nora López should be worried about normal teenage things: stealing some alone time with her new boy toy, Pablo; getting into college; earning some spare change at Sal’s deli; celebrating her 18th birthday in true disco style. Yet these concerns are overshadowed by Son of Sam’s yearlong reign of terror.

As the months drag on and David Berkowitz evades capture, New York City falls into a panic. Teenagers and young adults are cautioned to stay in well-lit, heavily-trafficked places – or stay home altogether. Young love is thwarted by after-dark curfews, and dark-haired girls take to hiding their hair under scarves and hoods – or dying it another shade. (A coping mechanism thrown into shambles with the murder of Stacy Moskowitz, a blonde.) The hysteria is only exacerbated by a city-wide blackout in July, which quickly results in widespread looting and arson.

Nora – herself a romantically active brunette – gradually finds herself swept up in it all; the similarities between her and the other victims are undeniable. Yet in a city of 7,318,000, Berkowitz’s victims ultimately numbered only thirteen, six of whom died. While even one death is one too many, the odds of falling victim to Son of Sam were statistically minuscule. The women of NYC were at greater risk of being beaten, raped, or murdered by someone close to them; someone they knew. A fact with which Nora is all too familiar.

The collective fear over Son of Sam forms the backdrop for a much more personal story of abuse. Nora’s younger brother Hector has always been a problem child, but lately his behavior is escalating. Hector steals, deals, and uses drugs – marijuana (which seems quaint, when the drinking age in 1977 was 18) and, more alarmingly, cocaine and quaaludes. A pyromaniac, Hector has graduated from burning single sheets of paper to torching trash bins stuffed with garbage – and, eventually, entire buildings. A chronic truant, Hector’s absences put Nora in a tight spot between the school counselors and their mother Alba. Worst of all, though, is the abuse: Hector is verbally abusive and physically violent with both his mother and sister. He’s also a total dick to strangers and animals alike. In one heart-wrenching scene, we see him kick a three-legged elderly mutt named Tripod.

While Nora worries about encountering Son of Sam on the New York City streets, she shares a room with a terrorist of another kind. And the danger isn’t even limited to Hector: as Nora goes about her day, she’s ogled and fondled by all manner of creeps, from the apartment building owner’s son Sergio to an anonymous d-bag in the movie theater.

Burn Baby Burn is a compelling yet harrowing story; like rubbernecking a car accident, it’s hard to look away, no matter how much you might want to. My heart ached for Nora, who gets precious little help from the adults in her life: her neighbors, most notably otherwise BAMF women’s/labor/tenant’s rights activist Stiller, who can hear Hector’s tirades through the thin walls and conductive pipes; her guidance counselor, who should know that something’s up (that’s her job, yes?); her tough-guy boss Sal, who’s had his share of run-ins with Hector; and her best friend Kathleen’s parents, the MacInerneys, who see Nora on a pretty regular basis.

While it’s insinuated that Nora is an excellent liar – hence the adults’ general ignorance – it’s hard to believe that no one had an idea what was going on, even as Nora and Alba walk around sporting fresh bruises on the regular. Given that the MacInerneys are all too willing to take Nora in by story’s end, their failure to offer her a safe space earlier left me scratching my head. And Stiller’s insistence that Nora “take a stand” is kind of harsh, to say the least. She’s just a kid, yo!

Likewise, it’s difficult to muster up much empathy for Alba. While I understand that many of her behaviors are survival strategies, she often crosses the line to denigrating Nora and blaming her for Hector’s abhorrent behavior. Nora is a bad sister because cannot control Hector – never mind that he’s now physically bigger than her, with a surly attitude to match. Nora is expected to work and pay rent, while Hector cannot even be bothered to show up at school. Yet who does Alba brag about to her friends?

An immigrant from Cuba born (I’m guessing) sometime in the ’30s or’40s, Alba is old school conservative. Even as Hector runs wild, abusing drugs, shoplifting, and setting things on fire, it’s Nora who is bad – a “slut” – for spending time alone with boys or wanting to move out and go to college. Hector’s criminal behavior, on the other hand, falls under the rubric of “boys will be boys.” It is infuriating, to say the least.

And then there’s their deliberately clueless dad, Frederico, who’s all but abandoned Nora and Hector for his new family. I can’t even with this guy.

This isn’t to suggest that I found the adults unrealistic; quite the opposite, in fact, which is why it affected me so deeply. Too often we’re content to turn the other way and pretend that domestic violence isn’t happening – or if it is, it’s a private matter. Not our business. Medina captured this societal malaise in chilling detail.

In addition to domestic violence, Medina touches upon a wide range of social issues, including poverty; racism; labor and tenant’s rights; second-wave feminism and its inclusivity (or lack thereof); racial identity; familial dynamics and responsibility; the importance of education, including vocational school; street harassment and sexual assault; and victim blaming and slut shaming. This is a wonderfully diverse and insightful MG/YA read that can be used as a jumping-off point for discussing the dynamics of interpersonal violence, among other things.

On the downside, I now have “Disco Inferno” stuck in my head. THANKS MEG.

* These Top Ten Rape Prevention Tips, on the other hand, are gold.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! The narrator, Nora López, is Latina: her mother Alba is an immigrant from Cuba. Her father’s name is Frederico; “Rick” now that he’s remarried to a woman named Linda. Nora’s ex is named Angel and her current love interest is Pablo “Paulie” Ruiz, who’s Colombian. The super in their building, Emmanuel “Manny” Barros, is also Latino, and downstairs neighbor Stiller is a BAM WOC activist.

Alba suffered from depression after the divorce some ten years ago, and may have recurring bouts as the story progresses. (The nature of her health issues is somewhat vague.) Younger brother Hector is seriously troubled: he steals, deals, and uses drugs (marijuana and cocaine in particular); skips school; shoplifts and steals from his mother; abuses animals; and is violent with strangers and his family alike. He’s also a pyromaniac, and his obsession is not-so-slowly escalating from garbage can fires to all-out arson. In the author’s notes, it’s implied that Hector may suffer from an attachment disorder.

Medina touches upon a number of social issues, including intersectionality (or the lack thereof) in second-wave feminism; racism; domestic violence; rape; victim blaming; slut shaming; reproductive rights; poverty; rioting and looting; labor and tenant rights; absentee fathers; racial identity; and family dynamics.

Animal-friendly elements: Hector’s violent treatment of Tripod, an elderly, three-legged stray mutt, acts as one of many signposts that his behavior is escalating, thus linking animal abuse with interpersonal violence.


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