We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough (9780525556053)
Em’s older sister was raped by another student at her college following a frat party. After reliving the trauma through the trial of her rapist, Em is incandescent with vindication when the jury finds the rapist guilty on all counts. Em has been an advocate for her sister through the process, becoming a social media figure in the #MeToo movement. Then the judge in the case rules that the rapist will serve no prison time. Once again Em’s entire family is thrown into chaos. Her sister must figure out how to continue going to school and where she can safely live. Her parents are fractured in their responses, smothering and avoiding. Em too must find a new way forward without the trial as her focus. Meanwhile, a clip of her after the trial saying she wants to learn “how to use a sword” has gone viral. As Em makes new friends over the summer, she learns to wield that sword both literally and figuratively as she discovers the life of a fifteenth-century French noblewoman who is a legendary figure who took justice into her own hands and at the point of her own sword.
McCullough’s writing here is just as fine as that of her debut novel Blood Water Paint. She writes such strong young women who deal with rape and derision and yet find a way to fight back in their own personal ways. For Em, her writing is a tool that allows her to cope. She gets caught up in the legend of Marguerite de Bressieux, writing at length, sharing it usually with a new friend who understands her need to stand up and be heard. Em’s writing is included in the book in verse, pairing beautifully with the prose and offering illuminated images alongside some of the poems.
Intelligent and raging, this book deeply looks at the impact of a rape on the survivor and her family. It’s interesting to have Em as the main character, a sister who feels powerless much of the time and must reclaim along with her sister what has been lost to the legal process and its clear biases. It is a look also at the power of art to express fury as well as hope.
Stunning, raw and gorgeous. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by Dutton Books for Young Readers.