Sunday, March 2, 2008

Burned by Ellen Hopkins

Burned is the story of Pattyn, a teenage girl who lives in a primarily Mormon community in Nevada. Her family adheres to a strict doctrine of Mormonism, where the men are dominant and the women subservient.

Pattyn is one of six female siblings, each named after a male military figure. Her dad is constantly battling demons. With his first wife, he had two sons. One was killed in the military and the other was gay, so he was disowned. These circumstances so aggrieved his fist wife that she killed herself, and now, remarried with so many new children, Pattyn’s dad blames himself and drowns his guilt in liquor. This leads to the continued abuse of Pattyn’s mom.

Pattyn begins to struggle with her own identity her junior year of high school. She knows what is going on at home is wrong, but when she tries to reach out for help, she finds the religious community defends her father. She’s named a liar by her bishop when she speaks about the abuse in hypotheticals, and Pattyn (unknowingly) begins to search for outlets to get away from her home life.

She meets a boy from her school one afternoon when she’s out in the woods to get away from the house, and they begin a romance that consists mainly of drinking and sexual exploration (though no actual intercourse). When her family finds out, she’s considered a problem child and is sent away to live with her aunt for the summer, supposedly as punishment.

Pattyn’s aunt Jeanette is her father’s sister. She, too, was raised in a strict, overbearing Mormon household and knows all too well the deadly lengths her brother will go to keep undesirable males away from good Mormon women. Aunt Jeanette has long since abandoned the church and lives on a ranch in Nevada, a wild and liberating environment that Pattyn comes to love and thrive in.

While at the ranch, Pattyn meets Ethan, a college student who is home for the summer to help is dad. He lives up the road and immediately captures Pattyn’s attention. All summer long, they kindle their romance which gives Pattyn strength and joy she has never known. Aware that going back home is the equivalent to being sent back to prison, Aunt Jeanette and Ethan arm Pattyn with some tools to gain some freedom from her father: a cell phone that Aunt Jeanette is paying for, pre-arranged calls with Ethan and a handgun from Ethan.

The reason for the gun? Since Pattyn’s mom became pregnant, her father has been beating her next youngest sister; the likelihood that he’ll turn on Pattyn once she’s home is great. Ethan wants her to be able to defend herself if things get too bad. Sure enough, the beatings start, and what’s worse, Pattyn finds out she’s pregnant. Desperate to get away from her family, she calls Ethan to get her and the two take off together. But her father finds out and the couple get in a horrific car crash as the flee from the police. Ethan is killed and Pattyn loses the baby.

From there, things get a little fuzzy. The book ends with Pattyn grabbing her gun and talking about killing a bunch of people and maybe herself, but it’s not clear how this really turns out.

I chose this book because the plot had similarities to my own: a teenager who is unhappy in her present circumstances goes away for the summer and is transformed due to her experiences. It was also very interesting to read because the whole story is written in verse; not so much poetry, as you have very little rhyme scheme or symbolism to translate, but each chapter is written in stanzas and verse formats. Some are even concrete poems where the shape adds to the understanding of what’s going on in that section of the story.

While I plan on keeping to a more traditional style of writing, I found Hopkins’ approach to this novel to be interesting and effective. Her storytelling whole Pattyn is on the ranch is noticeably different than when she’s at home and gave me some good insight in how to structure the farm portion of the story. I am planning on writing about the death of Anne’s grandfather, but not so tragically as Ethan’s death. Still, it was good to see how others do this in the young adult genre.

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