Happy Monday, readers! I was sitting at my desk worrying obsessively about my surgery coming up in a few weeks (a post for another time) when I was like, “You know what I should do? Re-write this draft of a post I have saved about how much Mosquitoland by David Arnold disappoints me now.” So here we are!
My very first post on this blog was three(ish) years ago in April, 2017. It was titled Book Review: Mosquitoland By David Arnold. Within this review (all four paragraphs of it), I wrote the phrase, “I would like to start by saying that Mosquitoland is one of the best books that I have ever read.”
Cue my maniacal cackling.
I was twelve then. I’m sixteen now, the same age as main character Mim, and…hoo boy. I’ve thought a lot more about disability representation, the characterization of adolescent girls in YA, and what responsibilities authors who write stories that portray sexual assault have to their readers.
A quick primer for those who haven’t read the book: Mosquitoland follows teenager Mim Malone, who ditches her dad and step-mom to visit her mother, who’s sick in Cleveland. Road trip hijinks ensue, as can only be expected, and she meets a cast of eccentric characters along the way.
Mosquitoland will always be an important book for me–it informed the types of stories I wrote and the themes I explored for a good long while. (You would not believe how many stories I wrote in middle school involved traumatized girls going on road trips.) And when I couldn’t stand to be inside my own head–three cheers for terrifying medical situations!–I’d get inside Mim’s, and she helped. I’ve read and re-read it so many times that it’s almost as beat-up as my copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban. (Oh, look, it’s another book I have mixed feelings about due to recent events!) But I have some Thoughts with a capital T, so let’s get to it.
Let’s start with disability. Early on in the book, Mim meets Walt, a homeless boy her age with Down syndrome. Literally, I cannot think about the portrayal of Walt without grinding my teeth together. (Here’s my usual caveat, though, that I never have, and never will, speak for all disabled people.) I don’t know if David Arnold consulted with disabled people while writing Mosquitoland, but I’m gonna guess that he didn’t.
Within the first three pages of meeting Walt, we already have the “character who is intellectually disabled but says wise things inadvertently” trope. (I’m sure there’s an actual name for that trope, but frankly, I cannot be bothered to do the Googling today.) “What are you doing?” Walt asks Mim, who’s just woken up from a nap underneath a highway overpass. When Mim says as much, he replies, “No. I mean as part of big things.”
Why must disabled characters be mystically wise to subvert readers’ expectations? What’s the point? I’m disabled and I certainly don’t go around spouting deep nuggets of wisdom. I barely made it through my world history AP. (Honestly, what kind of prompt was that? Fight me, College Board.)
Walt is also constantly and infuriatingly infantilized by Mim and Beck (college junior-turned-love interest). When Walt dives into a lake, Mim describes him as looking like “a lanky five-year-old who just discovered what his arms and legs are for. It’s awkward, fumbly, and beyond beautiful.” (Again with disabled characters being unknowingly deep and moving to non-disabled characters.) When Walt hugs Mim, she feels his “childlike innocence.” She says that she’s “never once felt anything akin to a maternal instinct…But something about Walt has stirred [her] up, brought out a protective side [she] never knew existed.” (Disabled person being used to further the non-disabled protagonist’s character development? Check. Treating said disabled character as a child in need of her protection? Also check.) Watching a fireworks show, Mim says of Walt, “He’s like a kid on Christmas morning, huh?” When Beck visits his estranged foster sister, Mim lies to Walt to sneak out of the car and eavesdrop, telling him that she needs to “check the tires.” In a tense moment, Walt defuses the situation with what Mim describes as “nothing but blind innocence.”
Again, WALT AND MIM ARE THE SAME AGE. All these references to Walt being like a child and how innocent he is and whatnot, and they are both sixteen. I am seriously having a hard time comprehending how David Arnold read over what he wrote and was like, “Yeah, I want this to be in a book that will be published for people to read.” But Mim says all of this with genuinely good intentions; we see in everything she does that she cares deeply about Walt and his well-being. It’s a situation that’s all too familiar for disabled people: Infantilization, patronizing comments, and casual ableism done with a good heart but that ultimately serves to dismiss and minimize disabled people and our experiences. The paradox created by able-bodied condescension (that is, kindness that amounts to aggression) robs disabled people of both the validity of their own lived experiences and the anger that those experiences generate.
And yeah, Arnold robs Walt of his anger. His mom dies? His dad abandons him? Mim and Beck view him as a child? Nothing. He’s happy and excited the whole darn book, all 342 pages of it. Intellectually disabled people have other emotions. If you’re not willing to put in the time to write a well-developed disabled character, then don’t write a disabled character at all.
But nothing in this book makes me as mad as an episode toward the latter half of the book. When Walt has an adverse reaction to some Chinese food he ate, all the clinics are closed because it’s Labor Day weekend, so Mim and Beck take him to a vet.
Sorry, let me just re-type that sentence here. A non-disabled author decided to write that a disabled character’s non-disabled friends should take him to a vet.
I’m restraining myself from using profanity here because my mom says I need to leave a good digital footprint and whatnot, but I’ll have you know that it’s becoming increasingly difficult as this post goes on.
Listen, Arnold didn’t have to write this incident happening on Labor Day weekend (or at all) when all the people-clinics were closed, but he did, and that says something. It’s meant to be a humorous side adventure, to take up some page-time, to stir a little drama between Beck and Mim when another potential love interest is fleetingly introduced. But it doesn’t come across that way to disabled readers like me (or, hopefully, to non-disabled readers with an ounce of good sense). And then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, there’s this exchange:
Beck smiles down at [Walt, who’s asleep in the backseat after this whole episode]. “We totally just took Walt to the vet.”
“Yeaaaah, to be fair, he is kind of our pet, though.”
We laugh because we love.
Sorry, could you just–excuse me for a second?
[LOUD, ANGRY SCREECHING INTO THE PRIMORDIAL VOID.]
There is so much about this interaction that makes me want to simultaneously scream into my pillow and cry. First of all, Beck smiles “down” at Walt. That is an intentional word choice that reinforces an intentional dynamic that Arnold has created. It’s like a parent looking lovingly down at a toddler asleep in the car–which would be fine, except for the fact that Walt isn’t a toddler, he’s sixteen years old. And then Mim calling Walt their “pet”–good lord. Obviously she’s joking, I know. She is a teenager, so she’s definitely not thinking about her word choice very much, but a couple things strike me here: 1) There’s about a bajillion other responses to Beck’s comment that don’t involve likening a disabled person to a submissive animal that Arnold could’ve chosen instead, and 2) If Beck is supposed to be somewhat of a foil for Mim, then foil, gosh darn it! Have him say something to counteract that! Also, they laugh because they love? Give me a break. See above, re: kindness amounting to aggression.
Oh, also, Walt is right there. He’s asleep, yes, but he’s right there. They’re talking about him like he’s not. Legitimately, that hurt to read. People talk over and about and behind and for disabled people like we’re not right in front of them all the freaking time. And it’s played off as something loving here. Loving! Honestly, I would be less mad if Arnold had cut the “we laugh because we love” line (which is so freaking condescending that I just can’t) and played it off as a joke–that’s how low my standards are at this point.
Phew. Okay. That was my first qualm with the book. (It was morning when I started writing this, by the way.) Onto my second qualm: The treatment of sexual assault.
Read the book if you want the full details, but basically, Mim is assaulted in a bathroom by a creepy guy she dubs Poncho Man. She ends up escaping. I’m…not really sure why it’s there.
Well, actually, here’s one hypothesis: Beck ends up punching Poncho Man after he assaults another girl, which is the oldest “good guy” signifier in the book–like, look, this guy punched a pedophile, so now you know he’s on our side!
But what about Mim? She feels queasy when she sees a man who has shoes similar to Poncho Man’s, and she has a…not panic attack, exactly–“dissociation episode” might be more accurate–toward the end of the book, and that’s about it. I’m not arguing that Arnold should’ve written in more instances of Mim being traumatized, but there’s lots of other things that he could’ve written about to give the story an emotional heft besides sexual assault. (Hey, what about that thing where she literally discovers her aunt’s body after she hangs herself? One would think, mayhaps, that this would have some lingering effects, no?) It feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arnold had to have known the optics of a middle-aged male author writing a teenage girl being sexually assaulted, so I kind of expected that he would handle it with more care than he did.
(Also, just while we’re on the topic–why are girls being abused by older men such a motif in his books? Mim in Mosquitoland, Mad and Coco–who aren’t even related–in Kids of Appetite…there are other ways to create tension. Also also, I gave a super positive review of Kids of Appetite as well. Guess who’s having second thoughts?)
Plus, similar to the “he is kind of our pet, though” passage above, there was another instance in the book that frustrated me a lot. Mim’s in the bathroom, trying to figure a way out of the situation with Poncho Man in front of her:
I’m shivering now, my bones and blood on full alarm–it’s a primordial instinct, Predator versus Prey, passed down from a thousand generations of women who, like me, feared the inevitable.
I’m having a little bit of a hard time articulating what about this passage makes me go “hm.” I guess…I know it’s Mim talking, but something about the “like me” just feels disingenuous? Or icky, somehow? And the part about how that instinct is passed down and whatnot–I mean, yeah, but it feels a little like Arnold is claiming a trauma narrative that isn’t his. That’s not to say that men don’t experience sexual violence, obviously, and I’m definitely not saying that men can’t write good stories concerning sexual violence. But again, the optics of a middle-aged dude writing a teenage girl being assaulted is a little bit uncomfortable, and I’m (tentatively) of the opinion that maybe the stuff about intergenerational trauma between women should be left to…women writers? Legitimately, I don’t know. I’m sixteen! Let me think about it for a while.
While we’re on the topic of uncomfortable interactions between gender and power in Mosquitoland, let’s talk about Beck and Mim’s relationship. Arnold, to his (very minimal) credit, is careful here–the most that happens between them is a kiss on the forehead. But it’s very clearly romantic on both sides, which wouldn’t be a problem if Mim weren’t sixteen. But she is, and Beck is twenty or twenty-one, so…um. Maybe let’s not? Seriously, I just…why? Mim might’ve had to be sixteen for the sake of it being in the YA genre, but Beck didn’t have to be a college junior. He could’ve been Mim’s age. Honestly, why choose to make it uncomfortable?
I never thought their relationship was creepy at all when I first read it, but I was twelve then. I’m Mim’s age now, and it’s extremely obvious to me that a college junior having romantic feelings for a sixteen-year-old is not okay. When Mim tells Beck that what she feels for him isn’t just a simple crush, Beck (responsibly) replies, “I’m too old for you,” then (not-so-responsibly) amends, “For now.”
Nope! Nope nope nopeity nope-nope. Even I know that you don’t tell a teenager five years your junior that you’re too old for them “for now.” It’s just not appropriate. I’m a little baffled, honestly. If Beck had just left it at “I’m too old for you,” it would be a heck of a lot easier to interpret their quasi-relationship as a misguided, youthful indiscretion on Mim’s part. But the “for now” takes it way off the rails. Are we supposed to be rooting for them? I don’t know, y’all. It’s just frustrating, because I feel like Mosquitoland is so close to being a book that I could re-read without having to squirm in my seat when I got to all these weird little moments that remind me, “Hey, this twenty-one-year-old dude is in love with a girl my age.”
There’s some other stuff that bothers me, too. I’m not going to say too much about the portrayal of mental illness (which is the central theme of the book) because I don’t have much expertise there, but at the end of the book, Mim dumps her pills out the window in a triumphant moment. There is a build-up, but so often, medication is demonized in YA, and I wasn’t super pleased to see that here. The American Indians in Children’s Literature website outlined some problems with the portrayal of Cherokee customs and culture in the book. The suicide of Mim’s aunt is ultimately glossed over in a way it shouldn’t be. It’s continually (and unnecessarily) emphasized that Mim is Not Like Other Girls™. I could go on if I wanted to, but I think you get the point.
I’ve stopped reading David Arnold books (which isn’t really that hard–there are, like, three of them). I read the first fifty pages of The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik before I gave up. I’m frustrated, and tired, and just a little bit angry with his books, because I want so much for them to be good. Mosquitoland meant (and means) so much to me. I still love some parts–there are bursts of beauty that transcend my problems with it–but he’s just not worth my time or money anymore.
Whelp, that’s all I have right now, y’all. It’s evening now, so I’ve successfully spent the day distracting myself from surgery worries and ragging on David Arnold books, so I’ll count it as a win. Also, this is my 50th post! Thanks for hanging around, everyone!
Until next time,