January 20, 2015

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future is one of the weirdest and most compelling books I've read lately. It's magical realism and stealth dystopia. Things start out more or less normally. Glory's mother killed herself many years ago and her small family--she and her dad--will never be the same. Her dad used to be a painter. Not only doesn't he paint anymore, but Glory and her dad cook with a microwave, not an oven; her mother killed herself with carbon monoxide. She has a friend she doesn't really like and one night they drink the remains of a bat and now she and Ellie are seeing visions of the future. They receive "transmissions" when they look at people and instantly know bits of people's history and future. The future visions coalesce into a knowledge of the Second Civil War, when women will be disenfranchised and oppressed.

At the same time, Glory's getting into photography vis a vis her dead mother's work. While it might seem too on the nose, the photography is an effective metaphor for her developing her identity, knowledge of her mother, and her "vision." And her mother's pictures and writing elucidate some of the problems with her friendship with Ellie through the similarity to her mother's friendship with Jasmine, Ellie's mom.

There are a lot of themes in the book that are significant to me. It's an anti-suicide book, for sure. The feminism at the book's core was a real surprise. The book has been criticized for Glory's slut-shaming, a small instance in a book with a lot going on, which is silly to me and holds all young feminists to a ridiculously high standard. Glory calls Ellie a slut and she feels guilty about it. Glory does go on a lot about Ellie unbuttoning too many of her shirt buttons and being too coy and flirtatious, but I saw this more as revealing Ellie's brainwashing and Glory not really liking her friend and not having sympathy for her. As you do. Glory is not a good friend to Ellie, but this is realistic. Some readers seem to feel bad for Ellie, who is a victim of commune/cult living. But I certainly don't think one should expect her teenage friend to rescue her. I consider Glory to be an anti-heroine similar to Katniss. She's not perfect and she makes mistakes but she's young, brave, and a trauma survivor. History of the Future is concerned with free will and independence. A lot of the characters are hemmed in by their history, their family, fear, the expectations of us all.

One of the through lines of the novel is the fear and loss of agency that a child feels when a parent has killed herself. Glory's ability to see the future is in service to her fear about her own ability to survive, to keep herself alive, and her new visions make her stronger and give her purpose.

I love to see YA books with feminist characters; this is the second one I've read this month. The book is a bit Feminism 101 for an adult reader. The betes noires of Glory and her family are anti-weaponized beauty and consumerism. It's great to show girls that they are not obliged to present themselves as sexualized made up objects in order to be happy and loved, but conversely it's not OK to demonize anyone interested in makeup and the like. The screeds against makeup and texting did read a little cranky.

I'm so happy that King wrote this bravely unusual book and I look forward to reading the rest of her work. I'm hoping that this book finds the audience it deserves.

Posted by kathryn at January 20, 2015 02:15 PM
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