Monday, April 18, 2011

Free to Be

by Julie Anne Peters
National Book Award finalist 2004, Stonewall Honor Book 2005, Lambda Award finalist 2005

Regan's brother Liam has always been a bit different. His best friends have always been girls and he's always had an interest in fashion. His father suspects that he might be gay, but only Regan knows the truth. Liam is transgendered. Every night she keeps Regan up at odd hours while she dons her dresses, wigs, and make-up, permitting her true self, Luna, to emerge.

This novel is essentially the story of Luna's transition, as seen through Regan's eyes. Unfortunately, with its contemporary setting in the western United States, that story is not a very pleasant one. In addition to a male chauvisnist father and a pill-popping mother who refuse to accept the reality of the situation, Luna has to deal with the taunting of her classmates and local townspeople. With the lack of support and understanding presented to her, Luna contemplates suicide numerous times, and without Regan, who, despite her selfish wish that Luna was not so different, provides the only moral support in this difficult period of Luna's life, she may well have done more than contemplate.

Ms. Peters does a good job of explaining a complex and somewhat controversial topic in terms that a younger audience can understand, though I feel that the book would have been more powerful if told through Luna's point-of-view, rather than Regan's. The decision to use Regan as narrator has ensured that the audience remain outsiders incapable of understanding the problems of a transgendered youth first-hand. While Regan is sympathetic of Luna's plight, she can never truly understand the thought processes that go through Luna's mind, and thus, neither can the readers. True, some readers may be alienated by a book told from the perspective of a transgendered individual, but if so, this book was not written for them in the first place.

I found Regan to be a rather selfish character, more concerned with how her classmates and potential boyfriend would view her as Luna's sister than with how Luna was coping with her situation. Also, I felt that the characterization could have been stronger. Some aspects of the characters, such as their interests and hobbies, seemed like they were just tossed in as an after-thought. For example, Luna apparently is a manga fan, as exemplified by a scene in which her friend Aly returns a copy of Love Hina. But this interest is never explored, which makes me think the author was merely trying to retain the contemporary feel without any knowledge of the pop culture she mentions in passing.

Also, I realize that I am probably ridiculously naive and idealistic, but I seriously had to keep reminding myself that such biased individuals as Jack, the father of Regan and Luna, actually exist. I know that discrimination is still a major issue, especially in the transgender commmunity, but I can't fathom why. People are people. It's very simple. And we should all be free to live our lives however we may choose, provided that no one else is harmed.

I am glad this novel exists so that it might provide some understanding to people who otherwise might fear or mock transgendered people. While there were some minor flaws, I would still gladly recommend this novel.

Grade: A-

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