American Heart, Huck Finn, and the Trap of White Supremacy
When the announcement for the book American Heart first came out I was one of those people who looked at the write up and promptly did one of those Annaliese Keating picking up her purse and walking out of the room things:
I’d intended to mostly ignore it until I spoke with a couple of Muslim friends who had tried reading the book and shared that it wasn’t just a book that was painful in its erasure and stereotyping, but that the book was also a poorly executed homage to Huck Finn, that great American novel about a boy and his walking, talking, Life Lesson. I asked these friends if they were going to write a review, and since they’d both declined I decided I would and try to analyze the book from a purely execution level, because the reality is that most books that uphold racist ideology and are published on 2017 aren’t very well executed at a craft level.
American Heart holds true to this rule of thumb.
Plus, I’m an absolute Huck Finn stan, problems and all, so now I was interested.
And American Heart is, page for page, a blatant homage to Huck Finn, even right down to the fake homespun/simple country voice the main character Sarah-Mary uses. The problem with American Heart is that while it fails in all of the same ways a modern reading of Huck Finn does, it doesn’t capitalize on any of the elements that make Huck Finn great, even in 2017.
Huck Finn is a fantastic novel for two reasons: it is a high tension adventure story that hinges on the will they/won’t of Jim and Huck getting caught and because of the uniquely clever and insightful narration of Huck, who is having his worldview challenged and is WILLING TO REALIGN IT IN LIGHT OF NEW FACTS. But even those who love Huck Finn agree that the characterization of Jim and his treatment on the page, as well as the plethora of slurs nestled into the text, make the novel overall a problematic favorite.
The problem with American Heart is that it fails to replicate the things that work in Huck Finn while joyfully glomming on to all of the things that don’t. Sarah-Mary is a contradictory, dim bulb of a character. She is utterly forgettable and feels less like an American teen and more like a caricature of one. She is decidedly detached from everything in the modern era: television, the internet, social media, in a way that feels artificially created so that the author can have a hand wavy reason for her to be so carelessly racist. She is able to use a video-phone in a sketchy truck stop and yet CANNOT FATHOM A MUSLIM WOMAN AS A COLLEGE PROFESSOR. And sure, she might be from Missouri, but the Internet is a thing, even in this book.
But more importantly, even as Sarah-Mary is presented with numerous facts, including by her younger brother who is much more interesting and compelling in the handful of appearances he has, she clings stubbornly to her racist worldviews, to the point that it becomes exhausting. Eye-rollingly so.
In fact, Sarah-Mary’s views on race lie in direct opposition to her views on just about everything else. Sarah-Mary is happy to question things in her world like religion and her aunt’s stern teachings, but never really questions the idea that Muslim people should be sent to internment camps in Nevada (a policy decision that is never really explained in the text to any degree that makes sense).
But all of this is secondary to the fact that Muslims are dehumanized in this narrative at every single possible junction, to the point that we are supposed to believe that a woman who emigrated from Iran and holds a doctorate in electrical engineering (she’s a professor, after all) would ask an ignorant fifteen year old girl (seriously, there is nothing clever or unique or particularly interesting about Sarah-Mary, I cannot stress this enough) for help getting to Canada. That is, after the immigrant from Iran with the doctorate in electrical engineering talks to an eleven-year-old boy about her problem and is maybe a bit disappointed that he couldn’t help.
And it’s worth mentioning that all of the dialogue from Muslim Woman on the Run is terribly stilted, like English is her second language and she can’t be very good at it EVEN THOUGHT SHE HAS A FUCKING ADVANCED ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING DEGREE. Not only that, but her function in the story is mostly existing as the in story Wikipedia page on Islam: she instructs Sarah-Mary and the reader on the tenets of Islam that goes way past didactic, so much so that every time Fleeing Muslim Woman speaks the story grinds to a halt.
And Sarah-Mary calls her Chloe throughout, as a sort of cover name, so that Runaway Muslim Woman doesn’t even get the dignity of her real name.
Sidenote: As I’m not a Muslim I cannot even get into the book’s tired, wrongheaded assumptions about Islam and the terrible worldbuilding of there being a detainment camp out in Nevada where we’re going to send all of the Muslims, but let me touch upon what an amazingly, terrible plot hole this entire thing is. Seriously, there is no mention of whether these are only Arab Muslims or Black Muslims as well and how exactly this undertaking was supposed to happen. Do people get sent to the camp if they convert to Islam? How does one identify a Muslim if they don’t have a quasi-Arabic sounding name? What about Christian and Jewish Arabs? What about Muslims who have left the faith? What about Christian Africans with Arabic names? How could this round up have been peaceful? Sarah-Mary mentions that they talked about it in school, but there’s no mention of how it came about except in hand wavy fifteen year old “Blah, school, amirite?” kind of way. Even Muslim Wise Teacher Chloe never really explains anything beyond registry and buses to Nevada. This major plot point is sort of glossed over and we’re just supposed to accept that this is a thing, like teen readers aren’t smart enough to question the feasibility of such an undertaking.
And this idea of Muslim interment camps is actually THE MOST COMPELLING PART OF THE BOOK. And yet, we don’t get a Muslim narrator living through this experience (which would’ve made this book 100000% better). Instead we have Sarah-Mary narrating for us. Honestly, it’s a bit like having a male character narrate The Handmaid’s Tale.
Chloe and her Wise Teachings about Islam are not the only terrible stereotype in the book. A Black woman who gives Sarah-Mary and her Runaway Muslim Friend (because honestly, why give someone a name when they’re just a stand in for Muslim people everywhere and there to Teach the Protagonist a Lesson) a ride to St. Louis reminds Sarah-Mary of a scary Black woman teacher she had back in school. Because of course, Black women are intimidating.
This is fundamentally why the book doesn’t work. Sarah-Mary isn’t a compelling enough character for readers to want to watch her grow and learn. And she’s definitely not worth enduring three hundred or so pages of clueless racial musings. The tired stereotypes in the book aren’t really examined in any meaningful way, and when the author does try to touch on them it feels like A Very Special Episode. The book as a whole is didactic and lacking in movement. The road trip doesn’t start until a fifth of the way into the book, and yet there is curiously little worldbuilding happening before that except for a neglectful mother storyline that feels altogether soulless. Events that should feel like Big Moments, such as a raid and the murder of a Muslim Man and an attempted rape by an ID forger, feel like just another plot point, lacking tension and emotional depth. The minority characters in the story aren’t people, they are cardboard cut outs of stereotypes erected for the white main character to have an Epiphany and Learn a Valuable Lesson about Compassion and Life and Being an American.
I could go on, but honestly, ain’t nobody got time for that.
TL; DR: American Heart is a book that aims to undermine white supremacy and yet ironically ends up clumsily reinforcing it at every page turn.