August 16, 2013 by Heidi
Welcome to Wyoming! My home stomping ground, and the state that will forever hold my heart. Home of Devil’s Tower (Close Encounters, anyone?), Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Tetons, and my beloved Big Horn Mountains. A couple of the books below also take place in Montana, but once you’ve crossed over into Yellowstone territory I count it as Wyoming (because sorry world, Yellowstone is 95% or so Wyoming not Montana).
Personal favorite? Unearthly by Cynthia Hand. But my favorite feels-like-home-to-me read? The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. It takes place in Montana, but is the best representation I’ve ever read of growing up in this region. What’s your favorite Wyoming read?
Title: Like Mandarin [Goodreads]
Author: Kirsten Hubbard [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Published: March 8th, 2011 by Delacorte Press BFYR
Format: Hardcover; 320 pages.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.
It’s hard finding beauty in the badlands of Washokey, Wyoming, but 14-year-old Grace Carpenter knows it’s not her mother’s pageant obsessions, or the cowboy dances adored by her small-town classmates. True beauty is wild-girl Mandarin Ramey: 17, shameless and utterly carefree. Grace would give anything to be like Mandarin.
When they’re united for a project, they form an unlikely, explosive friendship, packed with nights spent skinny-dipping in the canal, liberating the town’s animal-head trophies, and searching for someplace magic. Grace plays along when Mandarin suggests they run away together. Blame it on the crazy-making wildwinds plaguing their Badlands town.
Because all too soon, Grace discovers Mandarin’s unique beauty hides a girl who’s troubled, broken, and even dangerous. And no matter how hard Grace fights to keep the magic, no friendship can withstand betrayal.
Reading Kirsten Hubbard’s Like Mandarin was such an odd experience for me. It was so clearly this mental image of a place I know so well painted by someone who had only visited. I’ll admit, this made it impossible for me to not be constantly thrown out of the story by the tiniest details that were just plain wrong, whereas the vast majority of those reading would fly by these pieces without thinking twice. For example, being in school mid-June? Yes, large parts of the country do attend school well into June, but Wyoming doesn’t. We finish somewhere around May 20th. And this is just a sample of the tiny details that jolted me, making it impossible for me to sit back and really appreciate the story Hubbard has created–and that’s not even mentioning the major details that were impossible to overlook.
So let me go ahead and apologize for this “review”. I admit, I’m completely biased and I’m too close to really judge this book fairly for its merit. Please don’t let me sway you not to read it if you were already planning on doing so. Kirsten Hubbard does a fantastic thing in Like Mandarin that really isn’t seen enough in YA–she focuses on a friendship between girls. There’s no romance, there’s an emphasis on family, and Grace’s idolization of Mandarin spoke so loudly even if it was borderline stalkerish and difficult to understand.
When Mandarin and Grace find one another–or rather Mandarin decides they will be friends, it becomes clear how different and special these two girls consider themselves, because they want to get out. When you grow up in a small town in the middle of nowhere there are generally two types of people: those who will never leave, and those who will never come back. As an adult with the advantage of hindsight on my side, it’s so interesting to look at these characters and think that despite their dreams, they’re far too young to really understand what it is they’re asking for. I feel that Mandarin is looking for an escape from something bigger than her small town, and that she may never find it because it’s something that has to come from inside. For Grace, I couldn’t help but think that she would get out, and then want to come back. Her love of the land, geology, and history of Wyoming was so strong, even if her love of the place as a whole wasn’t there. I mean, the girl loves rocks–if you want to be a geologist, Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin is one of the best places in the world to do that.
Upon reflection, I decided that I’d be incredibly interested to know Grace as an adult–I feel like I already know Mandarin. It’s funny how, for Grace, Mandarin was this ultimate girl of intrigue and mystery, something to aspire to and admire. In reality, it was Grace that had the more admirable traits, if only she weren’t so spineless as to avoid using them. Hubbard was so subtle in showing this, such as the notion that while Grace was busy idolizing Mandarin, her little sister was busy looking up to her. I felt that largely, Like Mandarin was a book about realizing that you’re never as alone as you think, or maybe that you’re only as alone as you allow yourself to be.
But then, I’m afraid, I do have to spend a little time with my ranty pants on over Hubbard’s insulting inaccuracies of the area that is my home. While Like Mandarin is set in a fictional town, Woshokey, that town could basically be my home town or the next town over (in fact, my town and the next town over are mentioned as kids from our high schools hang out with kids from Washokey). So yeah…here’s some things: at one point they pull over to look at pronghorn antelope. As if antelope are something you don’t see literally every day. In this region, you do. They outnumber people in Wyoming 14 to 1. Natives do not bottleneck to look at them like they’re bears in Yellowstone. And then there’s Washokey itself–the name is a bastardization of Washakie, which is really hard for me not to be insulted by. Chief Washakie was a Native Shoshone leader who negotiated land and education rights for his people–in these parts he’s a bit of a hero. I grew up in a county named for him, we have a statue of him, an exhibit at the museum, and it is his image we as a state chose to represent us in Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. Every time I read the word “Washokey” on the page, I twitched. Then there’s the fact that Grace, who grew up seeing the Bighorn River flow by her town doesn’t know what direction it flows. Are you kidding me?! I was literally ranting aloud when she talked about its flow pattern. Hubbard covers this later by making it a ‘thing’ in the story for Grace to tell Mandarin that the Bighorn flows north, which she knows because she read it in a history book. Um…you mean she didn’t notice the freaking water flowing north?! What?! No. I’m sorry, when you grow up alongside the Bighorn, you know it flows north. It is ingrained knowledge. It would be like being from New York City and not knowing which was the East River and which was the Hudson. It’s inconceivable.
Like Mandarin was so clearly written by someone who had visited this area, but didn’t really spend enough time here to get it. I respect the reality that most authors set books in places in this same way. I read books every day that are probably just as riddled with these tiny inaccuracies, but I never bat an eye because they weren’t my childhood and home. I really don’t blame Hubbard for not really getting this area (and believe me, I could go on about things that weren’t right), but at the same time I can’t excuse them enough to say I enjoyed this book. I believe Hubbard’s mother is a Wyomingite, and I do love that there is this book out there that so accurately reflects the trapped and restless sensations that can arise when growing up in a small town. If you want to experience this, or a fascinatingly messed up friendship, Like Mandarin is certainly worth the time–I’m just personally too close to appreciate it.