Title: We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire
Author: Joy McCullough
Pub Date: February, 9th 2021
*An eARC was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Sexual assault, mentions of blood, harassment, panic attack, recollection of trauma. Please be aware that I will also be talking about sexual assault in my review.
From the author of the acclaimed Blood Water Paint, a new contemporary YA novel in prose and verse about a girl struggling with guilt and a desire for revenge after her sister’s rapist escapes with no prison time.
Em Morales’s older sister was raped by another student after a frat party. A jury eventually found the rapist guilty on all counts–a remarkable verdict that Em felt more than a little responsible for, since she was her sister’s strongest advocate on social media during the trial. Her passion and outspokenness helped dissuade the DA from settling for a plea deal. Em’s family would have real justice.
But the victory is short lived. In a matter of minutes, justice vanishes as the judge turns the Morales family’s world upside down again by sentencing the rapist to no prison time. While her family is stunned, Em is literally sick with rage and guilt. To make matters worse, a news clip of her saying that the sentence “makes me want to use a fucking sword” goes viral.
From this low point, Em must find a new reason to go on and help her family heal, and she finds it in the unlikely form of the story of a 15th-century French noblewoman, Marguerite de Bressieux, who is legendary as an avenging knight for rape victims.
We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire is a searing and nuanced portrait of a young woman torn between a persistent desire for revenge and a burning need for hope.
I have so many problems with this book, which we can summarize as white feminist garbage. It breaks my heart how much I disliked this book after loving, like absolutely loving, Blood Water Paint. But between the terrible writing, the very frustrating main character, and the basic feminist message, there was nothing good in here.
We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire follows Em Morales, high school journalist, activist, and feminist. She’s one of the strongest allies and supporters of her sister during the trial. But when her rapist is sentenced to no prison time, the Morales family’s world collapses. Em is furious and frustrated with the system and the world, finding hope from a 15th-century French noblewoman, Marguerite de Bressieux, who avenged survivors. Alternating between Em’s own life and her fictional poetry about Marguerite, this book promised to be powerful and heartfelt. It did not deliver.
For starters, I felt a little bit uncomfortable that the story is about Em, her own feelings of rage and hope, about her sister’s sexual assault. I know all family members are affected by traumatic experiences. I do understand the value of a story about how a family tries to piece itself back together and heal, showing how messy and long that process is. I do understand. But although as a concept I find it incredibly moving and emotional, Joy McCullough was not successful in this instance. Not to say this book is not emotional, it is. But it lacks empathy and character development for me to actually call it moving.
You see, Em Morales is one of the most frustrating main characters I have had the displeasure of meeting. And I have met A LOT of those this year. It was extremely difficult for me to sympathize with her and care about. Because in the end, her sister’s sexual assault is a backdrop for Em’s story. And that didn’t sit well with me.
Here is the thing, she’s a very self-center main character. Fine, she’s a teenager and she may grow. But she does not, in fact. Throughout the book we see her making her sister’s trauma about her. She complains about everything she has done to help her, feeling very frustrated when she is asked to step back. Later on, she has a very invasive moment with her mother that was, quite frankly, disgusting. Although Em recognizes that other people owe her nothing, that she doesn’t get to have other people’s traumatic stories because she wants to know, it’s exactly what she pushes for. So what’s the point? She doesn’t respect her own family boundaries and she is not really called out for it. No, instead all of the characters double down to her wants and needs, forgiving her when she hasn’t done the bare minimum. How am I supposed to believe this is a book about a family when Em doesn’t respect her family at all? Her self-center and overstepping are not even half of her problems.
We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire smells of white feminism. It stinks of white feminism, it’s not even funny. Em is a hardcore feminist; she hates all men, she rages about patriarchy, she’s a social justice activist, and a nerd of feminist history. Truly laughable she ends up being the stereotype of a 2000s feminist girl. I thought society had progressed from these very transphobic and racist “feminist” views. I know white feminism hasn’t gone away, but it’s not believable for a character characterized as such a history nerd to know NOTHING about intersectional feminism. Especially considering that her father is a Guatemalan immigrant. And even if her views are “realistic”, and by that I mean, we get where her lack of information comes from, I still feel very uncomfortable that this is the message of the book. Because in the end, Em goes on and on about the evils of all men, barely addresses that trans and non-binary people exist in the world, and she is never really challenged. And come on! These ideas that all men are the evils of patriarchy are excuses that white women make to not address the way they use whiteness to oppress people of color. And you know, not all men are cis!
I find it deeply insulting that a biracial, Latinx girl would never consider the role of xenophobia and racism in her own oppression. Unbelievable white. Besides that, her heritage is mentioned twice in the book; to say how violent Guatemala is and to complain about how rigid Spanish is for trans/non-binary people. That is, plus some food mentions, that’s all we get about Guatemala. I don’t think I need to explain how deeply frustrating is to see a country reduce to violence and oppression. Because let’s talk about it, let’s talk about where the violence in Guatemala came from, let’s talk about the role of the United States in the country that has forced so many people to migrate.
And let me take a deep breath here, let’s talk about Spanish and feminism in Latin American. Insulting, deeply insulting to completely ignore the tireless work of trans and non-binary Latin American activists for an inclusive language. I wouldn’t take such offense if the comment in the book would have been followed by something, anything, about activism in Guatemala. But nothing. Em, who we’re supposed to believe cares so much about feminist history, has no idea about feminism in Latin American. Unbelievable white. She spends so much of her time studying a forgotten woman from France, but she can’t bother to google about contemporary marches? I don’t think Joy McCullough even realizes how lacking Em’s activism is. That’s what I find the most dangerous. Feminism is not hating men and wanting to destroy patriarchy, we left that behind, please!
This is probably why I don’t think there is any character development in the book; I can’t see any change in the main character if she never discusses her feminist views. And you know, I also don’t think she works for forgiveness, or even apologizes correctly. Everyone just brushes off her condescending and invasive comments like nothing happened and moves on. Well, with that awful writing, terrible characterization and lack of plot I can’t move on. One of the worst books that I have ever read.