by Ellen Hopkins
Margaret K. McElderry
I think of myself as someone who blogs about poetry every now and then, so I was shocked, and a little mortified to discover that in the last several years, I have reviewed exactly two books of poetry. I'm not really sure why this is. I certainly read a lot of poetry... and I mean to review most of it. One of the things that I promised myself this year was to review more poetry.
I love narrative poetry. With that in mind, I dug into a book that I've been meaning to read for quite a while... Ellen Hopkins' Burned. I haven't actually read any Ellen Hopkins up 'til now - because most of the time they are always checked out of the library! All of her books are so popular.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book very much. I'm not going to worry about posting spoilers, since it's been out for a couple of years now, so if you haven't read it yet, consider yourself warned.
First of all, one thing I really enjoy about Ellen Hopkins' books is that they all have fairly uniform looking covers, and they are all about the same size like weighty doorstops. Burned weighs in at 532 pages, for example. The free verse really flows though, and each poem is short, so you can polish off one of these huge books in one sitting.
Pattyn von Stratten comes from an uber-conservative abusive Mormon family. She is the eldest of seven girls, and kind of a "mini-mom" to her sisters. Her drunken father beats his wife, and demands frightened silence out of his children. All of the girls are named after World War II generals - a byproduct of their father's obsession with all things military and his desire to have a son. As Pattyn starts to rebel a bit, and begins secretly dating behind her parent's back, her mother finally becomes pregnant with the long wished-for son. Pattyn's father ships her off to stay with her aunt Jeanette. It's supposed to be a punishment, but it turns into a wonderful experience, as Pattyn experiences love and friendship in a sane environment for the first time in her life. Of course, her feelings for her new boyfriend Ethan are intense, but she feels equally pulled to return home to protect her defenseless sisters from her raging father.
Hopkins breaks up the book by utilizing a few different poetry styles. There are a few concrete poems - when Pattyn is talking about a strained family dinner, the poem takes the shape of long strands of spaghetti, reinforcing the isolation in the text. Another poem takes the shape of what could be teardrops, or raindrops. A few of the concrete poems didn't seem to make as much sense to me, though. Why were there poems shaped like an hourglass, an egg, birds in flight or a checkerboard?
Many of the poems have the last line of each stanza staggered, inviting the reader to read the poem in it's entirety, or to simply get the essence of the poem by reading down the right hand column. Another thing that worked very well was the use of italics to represent other characters speaking, or Pattyn's own thoughts.
Pattyn and her sisters are actually her father's second family. Earlier in life, he raised two boys - one who joined the military and died overseas, another who came out as gay and was disowned. His first wife, overcome with grief, commits suicide. The fact that Pattyn has a much older gay half-brother whom she's never met seemed like a huge red herring to me. I honestly expected her to be reunited with him at some point, but that never happened. The ending of the book leaves Pattyn in a very dark place indeed, having lost everything in the world that's important to her, armed with a gun, and ready to unleash her frustration at her school, Columbine-style. What a cliffhanger! I got excited, hearing that there is in fact, a sequel, Smoke, coming out. But, it's not slated to be released until 2013! Well, we've waited this long for a sequel, what's a few more years, I guess.
I'm no expert on Mormonism, but I did find a couple of the things in the book a little hard to credit. It seemed unbelievable to me that the father would have a drinking problem, since mainstream Mormons eschew alcohol. This is a highly melodramatic story that touches on a lot of themes: abuse, right-wing religion, alcoholism, gay family members, government nuclear testing, true love, teen sex, teen pregnancy and school shootings. I'll recommend it to mature teens who are reluctant readers and need plenty of action to keep them interested.