book review: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 7.06.21 PMTitle: The Field Guide to the North American Teenager
Author: Ben Philippe
date: Balzer + Bray/Alloy; January 2019
main character: Norris Kaplan
young adult romantic fiction

Many think all resistance is good. Politically, it is certainly necessary to pushback again agendas that are oppressive, inequitable or unjust. I find that on a personal level, my own resistance, the ease at which I can say no or can cast doubt, will stunt my own growth. I think this sort of resistance comes so easily for anyone who is faced with something new if we don’t maintain a growth mindset. So much in this world changes so fast, that perpetual resistance, a continued unwillingness to new thoughts or ways of being, can wear us down. No doubt, there are things than can and should be resisted; not all that confronts us is good.

Reviewing The Field Guide to the North American Teenager has me thinking of resistance. This one has been a challenge for me to review and I think part of the reason is because I want to put this #ownvoices author and character into a box, resisting the possibility for stories that diverge from what I expect them to be. You could say that I have typecast the narrative and that description of what I’ve done would be quite apropos here with this book steeped in characters and thoughts that are based in prejudice.

Ben Philippe, as well as his character Norris Kaplan, is a black male of Haitian descent. Norris is first generation Canadian but, in this story he’s transplanted to Austin, Texas. He doesn’t really want to be in Texas and from the very beginning he dislikes the weather, the culture and the people. Norris communicates his thoughts in a manner that can best described as biting sarcasm, and he’s not afraid to shared his condescending thoughts freely with others. He’s left behind hockey, snow, his dad, his favorite uncle and his gay best friend. (Norris is cishet.) He’s a high school senior preparing for college who lives with a mom who is a Creole and Patois scholar. Norris seems to have internalized the importance of education so that his mom is not continually reinforcing the importance of school; her yet, her expectations are clear.

Told in third person, Field Guide is a male romance: Norris wants to get the girl.

But, what is this box of which I spoke?

I found myself putting Norris in a box; a Black box, so to speak. Norris didn’t read Black and didn’t particularly read teen. (If this weren’t set in high school, I’d label it New Adult.) But the Black part… what does it mean to ‘read Black’? What does it mean that I had to keep reminding myself that this character is Black? Perhaps it simply means that Black Haitian French Canadians have a different culture than I was looking for; perhaps the signs were there and I missed them. Perhaps this is simply the story Philippe wanted to tell. Or, perhaps it’s the edited story he wanted to tell. (This is a packaged book.) Which then begs the questions: for whom did he write this story? Who did he empower and who’s voice is missing?

In chapter 3, we’re introduced to the Jocks and Cheerleaders. They become the central supporting characters in Field Guide. This group of mostly white students maintain their power throughout the story, although Norris consistently mocks them. “And yet Receding Hairline, Hairy Armpits, Protein-Shake-Crusted Upper Lip, and the rest of the brood – Norris went out of his way not to learn their names, as the ones he assigned were better – had clout at the school.” p. 24

[brood: a family of young animals]

Philippe indicates which characters are IPOC, but not when they’re White. Well, not consistently. One of the jocks is described as have a “literal red neck.” (p. 23)

We get a better sense of the cheerleaders. After bumping into them in the hall at school, Norris decides they must all be named Madison “the brood of some Queen Mother Madison pushing out egg after slimy egg of mindless cheerleader drones somewhere in the Texas desert.” (p.29)

There’s the black Madison. “Her fingertips were perfect squares and shiny white at the tips.” (p. 28) After making a snarky retort to Norris, her conversation with him continues.

“Hmm, a bitchy cheerleader,” Norris said with a sigh. “You definitely get points for originality there.”
The girl instantly stopped fondling Fuller. [She had been described in the text to be pretending to stroke a bust of Stephen Fuller in the hallway.]
What did you just say?”
“You can’t call her a bitch!” Pink Alpha all but shrieked.
“Actually, I called her bitchy,” Norris corrected. “But I guess it does track that a bitch would behave in a manner that can be described as ‘bitchy’. Aren’t words fun, Madison?” (p. 29)

No one other than this young Black cheerleader is referred to as a ‘bitch’ in the story. She’s not given a name and does not appear in the story again. This young black woman is rendered invisible and is powerless. Note that Pink Alpha offers the pushback on the Black cheerleaders’ behalf. Don’t miss the language that surrounds her. She’s not merely touching the statue, rather she’s ‘stroking’ and ‘fondling’ it, adding a sexual/Jezebel dimension to her character.

Meredith Santiago is also a cheerleader. She’s a supporting character in the story and here is how we meet her.

“Just then, a camera flash went off.
“What the hell?” the angriest one – Hispanic with a long single side braid – shrieked, causing Norris to wince.” (p. 30) Oh, the picture he paints of those loud, high-strung Latinas. More prejudicial thinking.

See how I added that last sentence to counter the narrative? Re-read the paragraph without that sentence and you’ll be left thinking that Latinas are loud and high-strung. With nothing to counter biased thinking, it’s easy for it to be accepted as true.

While Phillipe plays with stereotypes and biases through Norris’ character – stereotypes that go unchecked – he also embeds them in the narrative voice. This, to me reads as a level of Whiteness that is typically not voiced in African American literature. Do Blacks, do Black French Canadians have and express bias? You bet they do! However, delivering this prejudicial thinking to readers without challenging it perpetuates Whiteness, the benefits and entitlements that come from being identified White. (DiAngelo) Yet, the prejudice doesn’t provide Norris any entitlement. He begins with little to no power as a Black French Canadian male and loses ground quickly by failing to build any alliances of quality or quantity with others. Even the use of the third person voice disempowers him.

Yet, he does build friendships and manages to have a little romance. That scene where the camera flash startled the Latinx cheerleader continues to introduce Norris’ love interest.

“Calm down, Meredith,” their mysterious photographer said.
“It’s a camera flash; not the rapture.” She was dark skinned, Indian or Middle Eastern maybe, with artificially dyed dark red hair that showed black at the roots.” (p.30) It may seem that witty banter is what attracts him to her, but that was flirtation. The attraction is articulated in the narration.

“The black of her hair had already begun to peek through the red dye, and this time, instead of Parisian, she had a whole Los Angeles thing going: oversize sunglasses framing her hair, cutoff jeans, and a baggy sleeveless T-shirt, all of which looked both secondhand and very expensive, like those celebrities caught at the gas station who still managed to look unattainable. She was better dressed than everyone else at the moment. Norris was kind of in awe of her ability to move across the globe through wardrobe change alone.” (p. 85) Aarti Puri is an exotic Texan experience for Norris.

It’s Maddie McElee, the blonde cheerleader, the one true Madison, a White cheerleader, who is empowered in this story. She holds the power in her relationship with Norris and if you pay close attention, she’s put on a pedestal with very few flaws revealed in her character. At times, she even puts his prejudice in check.

To add insult to injury in this story steeped in Whiteness, this story of the faux-privileged Black young man from Canada who’s working through his issues in Texas, we have to throw in the obligatory LGBTQIA character and another with depression. It’s even worse though: there’s “Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Cameron Tillman, so many others that I can’t remember all their names anymore.” (p. 319) Please, can we end the gratuitous exploitation of these young Black lives?

I wanted to resist seeing Field Guide as problematic simply because it’s such a different representation of Blackness. Honestly, I could see Norris existing in real life, dropping his smart ass, demeaning comments all over the place but I couldn’t see him being such an intelligent guy who would maintain such a limited view that is offered by his many prejudices. He never challenges the Whiteness in which these judgements exist and never grasps his own power.