Book Review: Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan (2019)

September 10th, 2019 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“What would Kathleen Hanna do?”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for depictions of misogyny, racism, and homophobia.)

I knew what the Riot Grrrl ideals were: Support girls around you. Don’t be jealous of other girls. Avoid competition with them. Being loud and crying in public were valid ways of being a girl. Being a girl didn’t mean being weak or bad. Claiming your sexuality, no matter what that meant to you, was a good thing. And the revolution was open to anyone.

You can tell a lot about a person from how they act during group projects.

The year is 1992, and Athena and Helen Graves are about to start their sophomore and freshman years at St. Ann’s Regional Diocesan Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s not that they come from a particularly religious home; their mom is an ultra-liberal Classics professor in Eugene, Oregon (soon to be NYC), and while their dad did attend a Jesuit school, he cares more about the social justice side of Roman Catholicisms than, say, slut shaming and lower taxes. But St. Ann’s – aka “the School that Suburban White Flight Built” – is arguably “better” than the local high school, so there you go.

Whereas Helen, with her wholesome good looks and active membership in the school’s pro-life club, fits right in at St. Ann’s, Athena and her bestie Melissa are more like unicorns: purple-haired, sparkly-maned, Riot Grrrl unicorns. Melissa sticks right the heck out, and it’s not just because she’s one of a handful of students of color (half-Cajun, half-Vietnamese, a rumor once circulated that “she was the daughter of a Vietnamese prostitute and an American G.I. who was then sold to her current parents for fifty dollars”). She’s an unapologetic feminist who’s vocal about her political beliefs…and to call them “unpopular” at St. Ann’s is the understatement of the year. Over the summer, when Operation Rescue descended upon Baton Rouge as part of its “Summer of Purpose” (fictional as far as I can tell, but firmly rooted in actual historical events), Melissa volunteered as a clinic escort. Athena is a little more low-key about her politics, but she tries to live by Riot Grrrl ideals.

A few weeks into the school year, Helen becomes the latest victim of St. Ann’s rumor mill. Supposedly she slept with an unabashedly racist MAGA prototype over the summer, became pregnant, and (*gasp*) had an abortion – with the help of Athena and Melissa, of course. Athena’s pretty sure she can trace this lie back to its source: Leah Sullivan, captain of the cheerleading squad, and girlfriend of her other BFF (well maybe scratch that second “F”), QB Sean Mitchell. Like all of Leah’s best lies, this one both plays to people’s preexisting prejudices, and contains a kernel of truth. It’s also designed to take all three of them down, especially considering the school’s strict pro-life policy. Never mind that Athena and Helen were both visiting their mom in Eugene all summer.

Even though she abhors Helen’s holier than though, extra-judgey politics, Athena wants to protect her sister. How can they – and the unexpected allies they eventually find at St. Ann’s – do this without leaning into the stigma surrounding abortion? Without sinking to Leah’s level? Without getting expelled from school?

Rebel Girls has a lot going on, and I loved like 97% of it. The ’90s setting – which makes this historical fiction, I guess, but having graduated in ’96, that term feels like a punch to the left boob – is rad and evokes all sorts of bittersweet nostalgic feels. (Even as I took umbrage to Athena’s dismissal of Prince as too middle grade, or Nirvana as too popular. Great things are great no matter how many people recognize their greatness!) Listening to Athena bemoan her lack of access to Bikini Kill cassettes, on the other hand, felt so adorably quaint and reaffirmed my appreciate for the internet, Facebook be damned. At times it felt like Keenan went a little heavy on the “What would Kathleen Hanna do?” notes, but those feels were few and far between.

Athena’s emphasis on taking the high road proved a little harder to swallow. It reminded me of Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” moment at the DNC…which was hecka inspiring, but has never really worked out for the left. I’m not saying you resort to slut shaming and misogyny to fight slut shaming and misogyny, but maybe rethink your blanket aversion to rolling around in dirt, especially if said dirt isn’t mired in any isms.

All the characters are well fleshed out – even villain Leah, whose possible motivations Keenan explores in detail. The relationship between Athena and Helen is complex and fraught, and it’s interesting to watch how it changes and evolves thanks to their involvement in the “Gang of Five.” Even though they attend a Catholic school, the teachers and staff are not caricatures, uniform in opinion; there’s a lot of nuance there as well. I especially loved Sister Catharine (no surprise there!). I also appreciated how Keenan couched this personal drama in historical political events; the girls’ protests become a flashpoint for a larger debate about abortion restrictions in Louisiana.

The subplots are all engaging too; in addition to abortion and sexism, Keenan addresses racism and homophobia as well.

Rebel Girls is a solid addition to the growing body of abortion fiction, not to mention nostalgic ’90s narratives.

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

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