We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire

Joy McCullough, illus. by Maia Kobabe. Dutton, $18.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-5255-5605-3
McCullough (Blood Water Paint) uses the legend of Marguerite de Bressieux, a medieval French noblewoman who avenged her sexual assault by going into battle against her attackers, to view the story of Em Morales, a biracial (Guatemalan and presumed white) Seattle high schooler reeling after her sister Nor’s brutal rape at a fraternity house. When Em’s attempts at social justice surrounding the event cause Nor harassment at college, Em begins writing Marguerite’s story through free verse as a way to express her anger at the patriarchal structure that seeks to silence both Em and Nor. With the help of nonbinary medieval enthusiast Jess, Em explores parallels between Marguerite’s and Nor’s experiences. When Em uncovers a painful family secret and becomes consumed by her research, she withdraws from those around her. In a moving back-and-forth between Marguerite’s verse story and Em’s prose recounting, McCullough questions chivalric codes of the Middle Ages and today’s meet-cute expectations. Though extended metaphor use can feel labored, McCullough emphatically confronts the toll that sexual violence takes and deftly questions who gets to control history’s narrative. Kobabe’s black-and-white illustrations border the poems, reflecting illuminated manuscripts. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 12/30/2020
Release date: 02/09/2021
Genre: Children's
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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