Entertaining enough, but not without some issues.
(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)
If my dad taught me anything it was what it felt like to want something, whether it was a book in a faded folder, or him, or whatever was on the other side of a tiny silver lock. But my dad taught me something else too, something that stayed hidden in my memories until years later, when a little girl with black eyes knocked it loose. Monsters are more interesting than heroes, he’d said. I had no way of knowing then, as I lay awake through the night with stories echoing in my head, that he was talking about us. He was talking about me.
In the nearly two years since I started coming up with four letter words to write on Issie’s hand, I had never once thought of “hope.”
Located near Syracuse, New York (the fictional) Brunesfield Correctional Facility is home to one hundred-odd girls between the ages of ten and eighteen. A large minority are considered low-security: runaways and unwanted teens whose parents dumped them in the system. Roughly half are in for drug offenses; along with the dozen girls convicted of theft and destruction of property, these inmates are considered medium-security. And then there are the high-risk inmates, the violent offenders, the so-called “monsters” of the group, one step above Seg in the prison hierarchy: Seventeen-year-old Angela “Angie” Davis and her dorm mates, Cara and Issie.
Angie rolled into Brunesfield eighteen months ago, after committing a string of robberies with her then-boyfriend Jake. (Not so much “one bad decision” as a series of them; and less “violent” than comically inept. Spoilers!) She’s up for early release in just three months, and hopes to be out in time for her younger brother Charlie’s birthday. But her plans are thrown into disarray with the arrival of Brunesfield’s newest inmate: a shy, ten-year-old girl named Jessica Ward who’s accused of starting the fire that killed her foster father and landed her brother in the hospital, scarred for life.
Strange things seem to happen around Jessica: Light bulbs shatter. Radiators burst. The air crackles with electricity and flames sometimes materialize out of nowhere. And that’s not the worst of it: A social worker named Dr. Rose Gruen arrives, hot on Jessica’s heels. Ostensibly in Brunesfield to recruit new members for “SciGirls,” her science program for underprivileged girls, Dr. Gruen nevertheless seems obsessed with little Jessica. Soon Angie finds herself unwittingly swept up in Dr. Gruen’s research.
Burning is likely to be compared to Orange is the New Black – OITNB for teens, if you will – but really it’s more like OITNB meets Firestarter meets The X-Files. (A bit of an oversell, admittedly, but you get the idea.) There are a ton of supernatural elements and weird corporate conspiracies that take it out of the realm of contemporary fiction. Nevertheless, one thing it shares with OITNB (aside from the upstate NY prison setting of course), is the way that the writers use a piece of entertainment to sneakily drop some knowledge about the prison-industrial complex. Whether it’s the use of torture (in the form of segregation) as punishment for minor infractions; the crumbling infrastructure; the inadequate educational opportunities; the lack of mental health care and drug treatment programs; the sub-par hygiene; or the potential for the abuse of power, Burning hints at the real monster under our collective beds: prison state, USA.
In this context, the budding romance between Angie and Officer Ben Mateo is troubling, to say the least; it feels like we’re meant to root for a relationship that, if consummated, equals rape. Because of the fundamentally unequal power dynamics between guards and prisoners, prisoners cannot consent to sex. Period. Though Angie and Ben only kiss – and in a point in the narrative when his position as guard is mostly moot – the ‘ship is disquieting just the same.
Returning to OITNB, it’s reminiscent of the Daya/Bennett ship – but without the feminist ending. Bennett started out as a perfectly well-intentioned, even sweet guy – yet the relationship eventually went sideways, revealing him to be not such a nice guy (or should that be Nice Guy?) after all. Yet Mateo seems to stay sweet to the end, which sends the absolutely wrong message. “Good” guys don’t rely on a captive dating pool, okay?
I had an especial love/hate relationship with the books on tape subplot. His Dark Materials is my all-time favorite series, and like most members of the fandom, I don’t think it gets near enough love. So Mateo’s gesture with The Amber Spyglass had me swooning, if just for a moment, against my better judgment. And then I felt manipulated. I am so weak, y’all.
(Issie’s reaction to the whole thing was pretty chill, though, I must admit.)
Anyway, while the story is slow to get started, it really hits its stride in the last third; this, for me, was the creepiest part. I like that the monster isn’t the usual suspect. (If this seems like a spoiler, worry not: it’s actually foreshadowed pretty heavily in the first chapter!) In fact, Brunesfield is filled with villains, most of them totally free agents. The ending leaves open the possibility that they will all pay for their crimes … one day.
The story is also wonderfully diverse: Angie, Cara, and Jessica are black, and Issie is Latina. Angie suffers from a learning disability, which went undiagnosed until Cara identified it as dyslexia. (Hence the audiobooks.) Cara is gay, and Issie is a big girl – and totally cool with it.
Yet there were a number of little details that didn’t sit right with me: If girls keep setting fires in the bathroom at night, how come no one finds any evidence of this the next morning? You have a pantry stuffed with food (including perishables!), but you never go in there? How are two New York City girls so scared of mice? When Director Wu takes a job elsewhere (offered by Dr. Gruen, to get rid of her), why wouldn’t the state just hire a replacement?
On this last point, Rollins could have made Brunesfield a privately-run prison, absent outside employees to oversee Dr. Gruen. This also would have provided yet another avenue for exploring contemporary abuses of/in the prison system.
Overall, Burning is an entertaining enough read, though not without some issues. If a supernatural YA set in a prison is what you desire, I’d recommend you give Nova Ren Suma’s These Walls Around Us a try first.
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Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! The narrator, Angela “Angie” Davis, is a black seventeen-year-old girl from Brooklyn. She has an undiagnosed learning disability: dyslexia, which her friend/roommate Cara identified not long after they met. This isn’t just mentioned in passing, but creates problems for Angie throughout the narrative: she must rely on her friends to read her mail to her, and Angie is frustrated by the lack of audiobooks in the prison library (there are only six, and the His Dark Materials trilogy is missing the final book). Angie has a younger brother named Charlie who’s forbidden from seeing her since she was incarcerated. Their mother Patricia is an alcoholic.
Angie has two dorm mates (who are also her best friends at Brunesfield): Cara, a middle-class black girl whose mother was a beauty queen; and Isabella “Issie” Suarez, a dark-skinned Latina girl whose brothers are Los Niños Malos gang members. At 250 pounds, she’s on the large side, and proud of it. Cara is in a relationship with Dr. Gruen’s research assistant, Mary Anne, who she used to go to high school with. It’s implied that Cara busted her step-father’s kneecaps because he was sexually abusing her. Jessica Ward, the newest inmate and their new dorm mate, is also black. (She’s also ten year old. Brunesfield accepts girls between the ages of ten and eighteen.)
Roughly half of the young women in Brunesfield are there for drug offenses. The Director, Mary Wu, is Asian, and there’s at least one Latina guard (unnamed).
Animal-friendly elements: Dr. Gruen’s research assistant, Mary Anne, is a vegetarian. She wears a charm bracelet decorated with vegetables, which leads to this irritating exchange:
“Really?” I ask. “Then what’s with the vegetable charm bracelet?” “She’s a vegetarian.” I groan and toss the green SciGirls bracelet onto my locker. “I love bacon, but you don’t see me wearing pig jewelry.”
Angie might not, but plenty of carnists do. Just saying.
Ellen keeps a pet mouse in the library, but s/he turns up dead in the kitchen pantry, charred to a crisp.