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Monday, May 17, 2010

Sisters Red (ARC) by Jackson Pearce

Title: Sisters Red, Sisters Red #1
Author: Jackson Pearce
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy
Release Date: June 7, 2010
Pages: 336

Scarlett March has always kept an eye out for her younger sister’s well-being. It isn’t as if Rosie can’t take care of herself, but being the oldest, Scarlett feels responsible. Now that the sisters have been orphaned, they rely on each other and the kindness of Silas--a young man raised in a family of woodsmen and living a short walk in the woods from the March cottage. There’s a dangerous secret that ties the three together, a secret so terrifying they would do whatever it takes to protect young, innocent girls around the country from being exposed to it. The sisters would even doll themselves up and wrap warm red cloaks around their shoulders, pull the hoods over their dark hair and lull unsuspecting men into complacency…

I was very lucky to win an autographed ARC of Sisters Red from a contest Tessa Gratton held on her blog. It was a book I’d been curious about; fairy tale retellings are some of my favorite types of books, but Little Red Riding Hood is one I’m especially drawn to. I don’t want to read too much into the book, but know the fairy tale itself has often been studied for its commentary on feminine sexuality; I’m hard-pressed not to approach a reading without scrutinizing that theme. It would seem Jackson Pearce had a similar idea.

The story opens in a rural country cottage which could be anywhere in the world, but some place quaint where two young sisters feel safe enough to play in their yard alone—safe enough where a strange man walking up the path doesn’t immediately send them running indoors, but merely alerts them to potential danger. These girls are smart, I thought. They’re wary and right not to be so trusting of a man with strange big eyes, the better to… well, you know the rest.

That famous line, truthfully, sent a little shiver up my spine. It was a nod to the familiar tale, but from a man—not a wolf. Already the fairy tale is changing. Ah, but with the story there is also a woodsman, the male savior—the Knight In Shining Armor, in other words. But what if Little Red didn’t need to be rescued, but rather, does the rescuing herself with the help of a friendly neighbor woodsman? He’s not even a very reliable woodsman. Silas, we discover, abruptly left small town Georgia for San Francisco, leaving Scarlett and Rosie to wonder if he’d ever return. Not to mention, they had to hunt down werewolves by themselves. Rosie the Riveter would be proud.

To stress how she's reclaimed female competence, Pearce emphasizes the way Scarlett and Rosie lure their enemies to their deaths. The girls apply make-up and don their famous red cloaks—arming themselves for battle with an enemy weakened and drawn by pretty faces, swinging hips, and the color red. Scarlett and Rosie are fenris (werewolf) hunters. From a thematic standpoint, I was impressed with Sisters Red. The fairy tale has been re-imagined to empower females who then protect other females when males are not only unreliable, but become problematic themselves (or have the potential to—pun intended if you’ve read the book). Scarlett and Rosie are not pawns. On the contrary, they orchestrate their own future and manipulate their femininity rather than allowing others to take control. The March sisters are strong in this way, earning physical scars that remind us literally how much is lost and changed by losing innocence. In other ways, they left a lot to be desired.

Rosie and Scarlett are two very different girls. Scarlett is obsessed with hunting; Rosie isn’t. She’s also eager to lead what she believes is a “normal” teenage life. Her obligation to Scarlett causes inner turmoil for Rosie when her efforts begin interfering with the hunt. This sets Scarlett off on an angry crusade which begs the question: Can Scarlett rise above her obsession and predictable characterization? The short answer is: no. The long answer is: of course she forgives her sister for being “normal.” I’d be shocked if she didn’t. There is, however, little character growth for Scarlett (who merely learns to live without her sister, but continues life as before)—Rosie, as the most convincingly conflicted and adventurous of the two comes across as the bravest.

With Rosie we see a girl truly divided by two worlds and two lives: live like Scarlett or pioneer a new path. Rosie’s struggle for balance was the most compelling part of the book. Her extracurriculars may come across as blas√© at first, but not when we consider how hard she attempts to ameliorate her hobbies. There is a point where Scarlett is supposed to be torn by betrayal and abandonment, but her convictions were lukewarm at best. I had trouble identifying with her, especially when she was so quick to betray her own friend and just as quickly forgive and forget a couple of chapters later. But if I found Scarlett to be rash and predictable, I found Rosie to be far too giggly. That’s a minor point that speaks more to my experience as a reader feeding into a book that is meant for a much younger audience.

As a YA book, I think it does well, if a little implausibly at times. I was curious why their fake stories brushed off Child Protective Services and nosy townsfolk for so long, but as with many YA books, adults are messy and get in the way: make them the enemy or be rid of them altogether. Teenagers, at least in fiction, can take care of themselves. That independence makes for a whimsical and dangerous mix of adventure that doesn’t always work, but in this case, I think it does, if only just. The red cloak the sisters wore were also a bit ludicrous, especially when I realized they would not be hunting in some historically alternate German countryside where cloaks are commonplace. Wandering the streets of modern Atlanta with a red cloak would definitely draw my attention. How those two remain unnoticed for so long is beyond me. It was a cute salute, but too anachronistic. I could have done without it. The girls could have improvised with other red clothing to the same effect, I think.

In any event, Jackson Pearce does some very interesting and wonderful things with the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She plays with responsibility and independence, empowering Little Red beyond needing male intervention. The girls can now choose their help (if needed) and that choice makes all the difference. There’s also a lot of action in which Rosie and Scarlett prove they can fight just as well, if not better than, any boy.  I’m not sure how the rest of the series will play out (other than the inevitable), but I’m curious to find out.

How many Jawas recommend this book?

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