Ask the Passengers by A.S. King. Little, Brown and Company, 2012. Available October 23, 2012.
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Face Value: When this cover was first released I didn’t really care for it. The photographic image seemed distinctly less powerful than the lovely, drawn covers I recognize from King’s previous books. But after reading the book, the cover grew on me quite a bit. Now, instead of a disembodied girl, I looked at this cover and saw Astrid, looking up at the sky, reaching out to send love to the planes overhead. The light pouring in, the typeface of the title – it worked for me. The cover fits the book, and it works really well.
Does it Break the Slate? Oh Astrid, of course you do. This is an incredibly powerful Slatebreaking book about a girl coming to terms with who she is, with regards to sexuality, but also with regards to humanity. Then she tries to be the person she wants to be, while putting as much love as she can out into the world. This book is slate-shattering. Not that I would have expected anything less, given my previous experience with King’s work.
Who would we give it to? I’ve read a lot of terrific contemporary realism with LGBT characters recently and Ask the Passengers is one of the best. Like Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom, this is a book about some of the horrible things that can happen to you when you’re a gay high school student – it doesn’t shy away from them – but it’s also about a girl who manages to still be her awesome self. We really believe that it’s going to “get better” for her, even if it isn’t right now. With that in mind, there are a whole lot of young people who would benefit from reading her story.
Review: A.S. King is one of our heroes on this blog. Not only are her books outstanding, Slatebreaking, important pieces of literature, with some of our favorite characters of all time, she is a fabulous Slatebreaker in her own right. When we saw her talk at our favorite bookstore, Changing Hands, last year, she talked about everything from shopping locally and getting involved in your community to The Vagina Monologues. So there was no doubt in my mind that I would love her new book. And I felt especially lucky to get an arc from the publisher, so I could read and review the book before it makes its way to bookstores and libraries. Like her previous books, King is able to take some pretty bleak subject matter and infuse it with outstanding, empathetic characters and a unique brand of hopefulness. I loved it.
This book starts with Astrid Jones in her backyard, looking up at the airplanes that fly overhead. And she sends love to every one of them, just puts all the love she has in her out into the world. As she explains:
“I don’t care if they don’t love me back.
This isn’t reciprocal.
It’s an outpouring.
Because if I give it all away, then no one can control it.
Because if I give it all away, I’ll be free.”
Everything else in Astrid’s word is so complicated, but that love is constant. She puts it out into the world. She loves unabashedly and unequivocally. Because there’s no place for that kind of love in her house, with her controlling mother and pothead father. Love is far from her school, where her small-town classmates spout antigay statements without even thinking about it. And in the midst of all this, Astrid is trying to figure out who she is. She isn’t sure if she’s gay, like her best friend Kristina who is a popular homecoming queen by day and sneaks out to gay clubs on weekend nights. She knows that she’s never felt anything like kissing Dee, her coworker, but she doesn’t know why she wants to stop before things get too far. Everything else is complicated. So she puts love out there into the world, loves without expecting anything back, because that’s simple.
Of course things can’t stay simple, or stay secret forever. And when Astrid’s world starts to both make sense of itself and come crashing down around her, there are a whole lot of decisions to make regarding herself and the people around her.
Structurally, this book is remarkable. King manages to balance several types of storytelling, that all comes together in a cohesive narrative. We have the small-scope realism: Astrid negotiating who she is, amidst the personal mindfields that are relationships with friends and family. We have the almost magical interactions between Astrid and Socrates (Frank S., she calls him, to make him less formal) brought on by her philosophical learning in her humanities class and her own paradoxical wonderings, resulting in some brilliant, internal Socratic Dialogues. And interspersed throughout the book, we have glimpses of the passengers. The people up in the planes who have no idea they’re on the receiving end of Astrid’s love: but somehow they become part of her story too. These passages about characters we never hear from again might seem initially like non sequiturs, but ultimately they offer this glimpse into the world outside that Astrid longs for, and is connected to whether she knows it or not. It’s not just one girl: people everywhere are longing for something, confused about something else, and trying to figure out how the world works with them in it. Altogether, it is a beautifully crafted book.
Astrid’s community is not conducive to breaking slates, though of course that just means they need it that much more. Astrid has to contend with interpersonal ugliness on a daily basis. She describes her small town school accordingly:
“I read books about schools that have gay/straight alliance clubs. These are fictional books. And so I believe gay/straight alliance clubs must also be fictional. We certainly don’t have them here. We have a sign in the entrance hall that says THIS IS NO PLACE FOR HATE, but that doesn’t actually make it no place for hate.”
But there are some bright spots. Her AP Humanities class encourages the students to think critically about philosophy, the world, and their place in it, and offers her a respite from her school’s conventional thinking (and trig). As someone who found solace in my own senior year humanities class, that challenged the way I thought about the world, I can empathize with this idea, that one class can change your world for the better, even if it can’t actually change everything, or even fix anything in the short term.
Now, let’s talk Slatebreaking. Anyone who is as thoughtful as Astrid is about who they are and what that means is almost definitely going to be a Slatebreaker. And despite the potential bleakness of her situation, she manages to maintain her sense of self – or at least her pursuit of that sense. Astrid doesn’t want to label herself, doesn’t want to place herself in a box by naming her sexuality any one thing, and it’s this idea that forms one of the book’s core questions, and one of its strongest Slatebreaking elements. She, like all people, deserves the time, space and language to figure out who she is, without having to be boxed in by other people’s terminology. The truth becomes complicated when you can’t define it. And as Astrid is pushed to make decisions and clarify definitions, she actually manages to articulate a lot about who she is, without giving up the grey areas. Because those grey areas are important, just as the process of finding out who you are is. A.S. King has given us another Slatebreaking hero and book, and we’re grateful for it.
Reviewed from an arc received from Little, Brown and Company. We received no compensation for this review.