Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Different Blue by Amy Harmon

A Different Blue

Blue Echohawk doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know her real name or when she was born. Abandoned at two and raised by a drifter, she didn't attend school until she was ten years old. At nineteen, when most kids her age are attending college or moving on with life, she is just a senior in high school. With no mother, no father, no faith, and no future, Blue Echohawk is a difficult student, to say the least. Tough, hard and overtly sexy, she is the complete opposite of the young British teacher who decides he is up for the challenge, and takes the troublemaker under his wing.

This is the story of a nobody who becomes somebody. It is the story of an unlikely friendship, where hope fosters healing and redemption becomes love. But falling in love can be hard when you don't know who you are. Falling in love with someone who knows exactly who they are and exactly why they can't love you back might be impossible.

Are we who we are because of our DNA?  Or, are we the product of our experiences?  This book delves into that whole Nature vs. Nurture question, amongst several others, and examines how our identity is truly shaped.

The first little portion of this book was done in third person which, admittedly, threw me off a bit as it was unclear what was going on.  Thankfully, these sections were brief and once over jumped right into Blue's first person POV.  I do understand the need for that initial little bit of storytelling, though I think it might have been more effective had it been more fleshed out, but being that Blue was two at the time of its telling, I got the need for third person.  Once I was done reading the book I went back to the beginning and reread those initial scenes and found that they made more sense and I was better able to fit them into what I had read.

This story really picks up with Blue, age nineteen and a senior in high school, who is struggling with her identity and trying to get a grasp on her place in the world.  On the first day of school she's introduced to Darcy Wilson, her new History teacher, and his somewhat unorthodox teaching style.  Young and enthusiastic, Wilson, as he prefers to be called, enthusiastically pairs the exploration of history with the examination of his students' histories.  This is done through a number of exercises throughout the year, each student building their history and unveiling their identity as the story progresses.  However, given what we know of Blue, these exercises are fraught with complication and agitation.

You see, Blue has no idea who she really is.  Her history is a story shrouded in mystery and doubt.  While she readily admits that the man, Jimmy, who raised her was good to her, her relationship to him is unclear and though she considered him her father, it becomes apparent through her storytelling that he was not.  Framed in a collection of narrative and dialogue, we begin to learn a little about how this relationship came to be, though the details are sketchy as Blue was a small child when she came to live with him and eventually Cheryl, her "aunt".

A number of events happen in this book which propel the story forward and offer Blue an opportunity to examine herself and her past.  Her relationship with Wilson is at times contentious and combustible, but his unwavering support and incessant need to push Blue to open herself up allows for a very lovely friendship to develop.  In Wilson, Blue finds the strength to be honest and with his encouragement and support truly begins to look at herself and the relationships she's forged with the people in her life, both good and bad.

This novel is a bit like an onion.  As the layers of Blue's past and present are stripped away, we learn so much about the things that have shaped her and why she gravitates toward certain people and situations.  Blue is a victim of circumstance but she's remarkably strong and self-aware for someone who's been through so much.  I loved her honesty throughout this novel, her ability to speak frankly, both verbally and through her art, was remarkable.

The story naturally transitions at about the 40% mark and with it Blue's relationship with Wilson begins to evolve.  They begin to need each other in different ways outside of the school environment, though nothing inappropriate happens.  Though the stories are very, very different, I liken Darcy Wilson to Will Cooper from Slammed by Colleen Hoover, as they both seem to innately understand what the heroines are going through and push beyond the BS to get at the heart of the matter.  Each hero is insightful and gentle and thoughtful.  Both are tender but no nonsense and have lessons to teach which go way beyond the classroom.  And, most importantly, each understand and respect the boundaries of a teacher/student relationship, though Will Cooper understandably has more difficulty with it than Wilson.

This book is ripe with lovely characters.  Yes, Blue and Wilson are its stars and each is realized beautifully, but there are others which bear mentioning as their presence, whether brief or long term, truly added flavor to this novel.  Blue's friend Manny is a bit of an enigma but truly interesting, and it appears that he's Blue's first true friend.  The openness with which he expresses himself and his inability to filter his thoughts, regardless of impropriety, shows Blue what it means to truly embrace who you are fundamentally.  If you read the book it's obvious why Manny's time in this story is brief but I still wished there were more of him and I kept praying for him to come back.  Tiffa, Wilson's sister, plays a hugely important role and is, in many ways, as important to Blue as Wilson is.  The relationship allows Blue to experience family and love, it offers her a chance to explore her art more seriously and gives her the opportunity to move beyond the confines of the life she's been mired in.  Even characters like Cheryl and Mason allow Blue to see her life more clearly, to move beyond the confines and constraints of the life she was handed and offer her the opportunity to examine her decision making process.

Blue's art is like a character in itself.  Each piece she creates throughout the novel exposes something new and allows the reader to understand her process of self-discovery.  Though Blue may sometimes not be able to fully realize its impact or even be honest with herself about its meaning, the art never lies.  The process and evolution of each piece signifies an important change in Blue, they reveal her heart, her growth, her fears.  They express the changes she's enduring and the author does a truly wonderful job of detailing them in a way which gives them life.

This story if very reminscient of The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay, with its character development, slow-building love story and lessons about identity and the acceptance of ourselves.  Though the heroines are different in many respects, their process is very similar and both stories leave you feeling fuller.  Both novels left me with as many questions as they did answers.  Questions about how we're formed and who we are.  Questions about the way we navigate the world and our impact on others.  These are no simple love stories, they are rich tapestries, vibrant and breathing and complex.  They are aching and sweet, and full of introspection.

I recommend reading both books.  Not for comparison sake, but because they are each stunning in the way they capture the human condition and explore the evolutionary process.

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