Anyone who’s ever watched Mean Girls knows that there are castes in school, the same way that there are castes in Indian society. There are the Brahmin, the highest caste, which everyone reveres. There are the Untouchables, the lowest caste, which everyone shuns. And then there are some castes in the middle which nobody really cares about unless you’re in one of them.
There aren’t many Brahmin. It’s an honor to be Brahmin, and if everyone were Brahmin, it wouldn’t be as much of an honor. There are plenty of Untouchables, but not so many that they’d overrun India and take it by force.
Most people fall into those obscure, in-between castes, and nobody cares much about them. Or so they might think, at least.
When I was in junior high, I was in that in painful, nameless, in-between caste. I wanted desperately to be popular, but my every effort to win the friendship of the popular kids was summarily rebuffed. Every once in a while, one of them would throw me a bone and be nice to me (sometimes so that I’d let them cheat off me), but it never lasted. I hated life in those days. I felt like a total loser, and I despaired because, in my heart, I believed it was true.
David Mitchell captured the essence of my despair, put it in a thirteen-year-old English boy, threw in a few other hardships, and made a masterpiece.
Black Swan Green is the story of young Jason Taylor. Jason lives in Black Swan Green, a nice neighborhood in Worcestershire. He has a stutter, he’s unpopular in school, he just broke an antique watch of his grandfather’s that his father gave him, and there’s something weird going on between his parents that he just can’t figure out.
Jason’s story is, in many ways, typical. He has some disadvantages: his stutter, his unpopularity, his desperate desire for popularity. He also has a few advantages: his parents are well-off, there are kids even less popular than he is for the popular kids to pick on, he’s not a complete idiot.
And it’s Jason’s averageness that makes him so relatable. Most people have relatively unremarkable upbringings. Our parents had problems and sometimes took them out on us. We fought with our siblings. We got annoyed with our friends. We were tempted to do the wrong thing in order to look cool. And it’s the sincerity of Jason’s reactions to these situations that make the story so compelling.
Mitchell is fair in his portrayal of Jason’s bullies through his eyes. We can feel Jason’s hatred and fear of these boys, but Mitchell also gives us short glimpses of what might make these kids they way they are. Jason, as a kid in the thick of this bullying, doesn’t think that far about it, but the adult reader has to consider it, if only for a moment.
There are several brilliant scenes in the book; the teacher’s class discussion about secrets, Jason’s visit to the House of Mirrors at the carnival, the episode with the gypsies. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, too. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of life as a thirteen-year-old boy without a few laughs.
Mitchell’s writing is pitch-perfect. He does an excellent job of communicating Jason’s thoughts to the reader, but still writing beautifully. Sometimes, you have to make your main character a poet in order to write poetically from a first-person point of view.
This book called my thirteen-year-old self to mind so vividly that it was almost as though I were in the room with myself: hunched over self-consciously, wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt because she didn’t have any sense of style, hair unmercifully permed by her mother, thick glasses made for American noses inevitably slipping down her face, which was screwed into a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction with herself.
This was a girl who, in her desperation not to lose the two more popular friends she had, went along with their cruel decision to ditch a third less popular friend. She wrote a really mean letter to that third girl and never explained herself and never apologized. She signed that letter with her name because she wanted the two friends she had left to be impressed with her courage. She forever regretted knowing that, whenever the third girl looked at her after that, she would always see the decisive signature at the bottom of that heartless note.
When that third girl was finally accepted back into the group, with no explanation and no fanfare, she never could bring herself to apologize for that note.
(Sue Mei, if you’re out there somewhere, I want you to know that I regretted writing that letter the minute I sent it to you, and I’ve been wanting to apologize for it ever since. I hope you can forgive me.)
If I could talk to that ill-adjusted thirteen-year-old girl, I wouldn’t tell her to just suck it up because everyone goes through this phase. I wouldn’t tell hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.
I’d just tell her I was sorry for her, and that I always would be, but that these are the things that you have to go through in order to grow up.