Burn Baby Burn
Candlewick, 2016 300 pages
Nora is looking forward to ending her high school career, getting a full-time job, and moving into her own apartment. Life in 1977 Queens is gritty and dangerous. The Son of Sam serial killer has begun his killing spree, murdering teenage girls matching Nora's physical description. She and her best friend Kathleen are determined to find fun in their final days of high school, despite the grim cloud over the city. Nora's brother Hector, who has always been mentally unbalanced, is spinning out of control. At only sixteen years old he rarely goes to school, constantly carries around a Zippo lighter which he uses to start fires, and has started taking drugs. Even worse, he has become physical with Nora and her mother whenever he doesn't like what they say. Nora feels helpless by Hector's behavior and unsupported by her mother, who makes excuses for Hector's abuse. A cute new boyfriend, encouragement to go to college from caring teachers, a kind boss, and a feminist powerhouse of a neighbor keep Nora pointed in the right direction, even though embarrassment and ignorance prevent her from remedying her home situation. Finally, a major blackout hits New York City and with it comes looting, arson, and anarchy. Will New York ever feel safe again? What was the extent of Hector's involvement? Will Nora ever find her way out of her hopeless situation? Help comes from an unexpected source and Nora eventually takes control of her life and finds the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it means alienating the ones she loves in the process.
Its so weird that events that I have lived through have become historical fiction. Even though I was only nine years old in 1977 and lived upstate, I remember that desperate atmosphere of New York City during this time and all of the adults talking about it. Its hard to reconcile the dirty and dangerous New York of the late 1970s to the glitzy tourist destination with a Starbucks on every corner that it is today. Medina grew up in Nora's neighborhood and experienced the "Summer of Sam" first hand. She does not lean solely on her recollections and explains in an author's note the extensive research that she put in to make the novel as historically accurate as possible. The setting is almost a character all its own and the story could not exist in a different time and place. What is universal is the theme of living under the cloud of domestic abuse. It is unusual to see the abuse coming from a younger sibling, but this is a reality in life and its important to see this horrible scenario depicted in young adult literature. There is a bit of mystery to the story as the reader becomes suspicious that perhaps Hector is the Son of Sam. Nora's family is Cuban and although Spanish words are sprinkled throughout the text, particularly when the mother is speaking, meaning is conveyed through context clues. Racism, sexism, and the plight of the immigrant are all themes explored in this novel, as are the importance of friendship, hard work, and living with integrity. Nora finally makes the right decision concerning her brother, losing her relationship with her mother, but making the best choice for her own success and healing. Even though this novel is set in the past, today's teens will find relevance in the story and will be swept up into its pages.