As a librarian, I come across books that have never been checked out all the time. Recently, I decided to check out a YA book called Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith. At that time, it hadn’t been checked out at all, and had been out on the shelves for nearly two years. There is another reason why I chose to read it, but I’ll explain later. Did this book deserve to be read? Despite some minor flaws, it did!
Hearts Unbroken is a realistic and cultural young adult book about Louise Wolfe – a Muscogee (Creek) Native teenager who dumps her jock first boyfriend after he makes a very insensitive remark about her race. She then spends her senior year working on the school newspaper with Joey Kairouz – the ambitious Lebanese American photojournalist – and covering the backlash of the musical director’s color-conscious approach to casting The Wizard of Oz from the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater (PART). This hostility leads to anonymous threats, bullying, and blackmail, which affect teachers; parents; students; and the cast members, including Hughie – Louise’s brother who was cast as the Tin Man. Oh, and she might have feelings for Joey despite trying to date in a mostly white Kansas suburban area.
The main reason why I picked this novel up was because I had felt guilty for not liking Rain is Not My Indian Name (RINMIN) – another book by Smith – as much as I should’ve. While on the Internet, I discovered that both titles take place in the same universe, and that both protagonists are actually cousins. Another plus was that Rain, Fynn, and the rest of the Summer Indian Camp gang (including Queenie) made appearances throughout the book. I assume that Rain and Queenie managed to pack things up between the events of Rain is Not My Indian Name and Hearts Unbroken. Think of the latter as a spinoff of the former.
But these aren’t slap dashed cameos. Rain and Fynn help Louise out as much as they can with her issues with school and Joey throughout the novel. The only thing that I have to nitpick about this aspect is that the book wants us to believe that the events of Hearts Unbroken take place 2-3 years after the ones from Rain is Not My Indian Name. However, both novels were published 17 years apart, and it sometimes shows, especially when technology is mentioned. I kind of wished that Rain was in her 30s in Hearts Unbroken, so she could give wisdom to Louise as an older cousin.
Speaking of Rain and Louise, both realize the true meaning of empathy. Both demonstrate that they are capable of relating to others (especially Louise with her journalism class), yet both learn that they need to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. In the older book, Rain realizes that closing herself prevented her from not only sharing her heritage with others, but also understanding their side of the story and realizing that she may have been wrong in her views. With the newer novel, even though Louise dumps Cam – her first boyfriend – via email immediately after he makes an inconsiderate quip about her race, she almost endangers her relationship with Joey when she says some things that he perceives to be insensitive regarding the Middle East. She even recognizes that she was an asshole for dumping Cam via email, thus justifying his post-breakup anger towards her.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: its wokeness. The racism in Hearts Unbroken is far more overt than it was in Rain is Not My Indian Name. Along with the comment that Cam makes, the book contains a group of parents who are clearly against the color-conscious casting even if they refuse to admit that. At one point, someone tells Louise’s family to go back to where they came from by spraying that onto the side of their house.
Normally, readers might think that these actions of racism are too blatant. However, as more people become empowered to express their racist views, many have grown emboldened to combat them to ensure that everyone is treated equally and given the same access to resources, especially within the last four years. It helps that Louise and her family have different reactions to these situations. Her parents want to be resilient and not worry about her, yet Louise wants to write about it since she’s a reporter for the school newspaper. In addition, the novel also tackles reconciling the actions of historical figures. While rehearsing for The Wizard of Oz, Hughie discovers L. Frank Baum’s views of Native Americans, and he has to decide if he’s able to separate the art from the artist.
Another plus to this book is that it actually contains Muscogee words and phrases that the main characters (mainly Louise and Hughie) use throughout as beginning speakers. Smith was kind enough to include a Mvskoke (Muscogee)-English Glossary at the end of the book. These contain sentences like estonko? (how are you?), hesci (hello), and cokvheckv omvlkat enakes (education for all). All I have to say is cokv kerretv heret os or learning is good!
While looking at reviews, I noticed two main complaints from readers: the chapters themselves and too many characters. Most of the chapters were pretty short, which makes it a good book to read before going to bed, but I too noticed that some were longer than others. I can see how readers might perceive this as inconsistent, but I wasn’t bothered by this because some chapters will be longer due to important plot points occurring. Now, for the other criticism of the whole load of characters, I think that one is a little more valid. There were people who showed up for a scene, and then, they were never seen again. For example, Louise visits a student who works as a page for the school library, and she gives her a book when being asked about the musical. Readers never see this character nor the book again. I think Smith could have reduced the character count and still have the same story.
The only thing that I have a slight problem with is how Louise and Joey reconcile. During the climax, a tornado comes around (did I mention the book is set in Kansas?), and what do they do? After Joey forgives Louise, they go into his Jeep, and they start making out. Yep, they do that in a Jeep in a parking lot while an actual tornado is happening. I couldn’t take that seriously! It sounded like it could be in a PG-13 Hallmark movie.
All in all, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is a YA book that people should read. It tackles the issue of race in necessarily overt, deep, and simple ways. In fact, I actually think that this is better than Rain is Not My Indian Name. Like that title, I would recommend this novel to those who are looking to read stuff with Native American protagonists. When one has the chance, try to check out a book that looks like it needs love. It’s available in print as well as on Hoopla and Libby.
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