Allison's Book Bag

Seeing Red by Kathyrn Erskine

Posted on: January 11, 2014

Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine is deserving of multiple literary awards. It’s that good. There are books that I add to my wish list. There are others that I eagerly recommend to others. This is the first book since I began my book review blog, over two years ago, that makes me think AWARD. For that reason, I’m not going to tell you what I liked and disliked about it. I’m just going to tell you what Seeing Red is about, so I can entice you to read it.

First, Seeing Red is about relationships, ones between families and ones with neighbors. Red’s dad has just died. His mom wants to sell their Virginia home, leave behind most of their possessions, and move in with relatives in Ohio. Red wants to stay right where they are and keep running the family business. He’s so determined to make this happen that he starts vandalizing the FOR SALE sign and spray painting their property to make it look rundown. If the family absolutely has to move, then his dad’s stuff is going with them.  Even if he has to mark each for the mover himself. As for Red’s little brother, J seems to care only about getting special food and proper care, until one day J refuses to remove a Band-Aid that his dad put it on for him. Erskine has also effectively explored reactions to death in her previous novels. Having even myself grieved in different ways, I appreciated that in Seeing Red each family member is handling grief in their own way and learning to respect their differences.

Because Red’s dad ran a business, the family also has a lot of dealings with neighbors. Some are good, some are not so good. After Red’s dad dies, Red keeps servicing Miss Georgia’s car but runs into a problem when the car needs an alternator. Ordering a new one will cost $200, which she doesn’t have. Even dragging a used one from the dump will cost $100, which is still more than Miss Georgia can afford. After consulting his dad in his head, Red figures out a solution that will cost 95 cents! In contrast to Miss Georgia, Red’s dad doesn’t care for Mr. Dunlop. Red doesn’t either, especially when he realizes Mr. Dunlop beats his children. Mr. Dunlop used to be happy as a trucker, but now that he’s staying home to care for his sick wife he’s miserable. Change needs to happen, before Mr. Dunlop kills someone. Of the novels I’ve read by Erskine, Seeing Red has the most complex range of characters. None of the good characters are perfect, which is why Red initially dislikes the lawyer who ends up helping him. Nor are any of the main bad characters completely evil, which is why Mr. Dunlop receives help from neighbors.

Seeing Red is also about bullies and racism. Bullies come in different forms. There’s the slick real estate agent, who keeps pressuring Red’s mom to sell by telling her this is what her husband would want. Then there’s the principal, who doesn’t like the history lessons being given to Red’s class. Whenever her class starts having loud discussions about civil rights, women’s rights, or any other kind of rights, the principal is there trying to stop them. Next, there’s the gang that Red is invited to join. It consists mostly of classmates, around whom he feels safe. The gang offers to help him keep his home, which it seems Red will do anything to make happen, including burning a cross on a neighbor’s yard. His limits are tested, however, when part of the initiation involves hitting a schoolmate whom the gang has tied up and gagged. As a teacher, I have read and watched enough about bullying to know there aren’t any simple answers. Erskine recognizes this, while also making clear that the solution lies within each of us.

As for racism, I also respected Erskine’s exploration of it. When Red tried to walk away from that gang, and they threatened him, he backed down. He agreed to hit the schoolmate. And immediately regretted it. But also had to live with it, because that schoolmate had been a friend. Later, when Red started to dig through his dad’s desk in preparation to move, he discovered a land claim that led to his realization that one of his ancestors had murdered a black person. He didn’t want to acknowledge this fact. Yet to deny it would mean being dishonest in his history report to his teacher. And losing an opportunity to right a sin from the past. In earlier novels by Erskine, I’ve criticized her almost too perfect endings. In Seeing Red, yes, there are some wonderful changes. We expect this both in novels and in life. But reality also remains wholly present. Red’s family still grieves. Some bullies, even ones who are friends, make mistakes that land them in jail. And some town leaders, even moral ones such as pastors, hold fast to racism.

Last, Seeing Red is about history and bringing about change. Red thinks history is stupid. Why care about something that’s in the past and unchangeable? But everyone has the ability to make a difference, if only they would try. Red’s family can help a neighbor boy when his mom dies, by taking him into their home. And history isn’t just something to read about. We can make history daily with our actions. Both Red’s mom and his teacher refuse to let the men in their lives relegate them to being simple housewives. Red and his brother learn how to clean and cook, chores that many men of the time considered beneath them. Interviews with Erskine often bring out her strong belief that change is something that young people can invoke. Seeing Red is a remarkable example of  how hard it can be, but also how important it is, to make a difference. I can’t stress enough how realistic yet hopeful this book is.

By far, this is one of my lengthier reviews. Yet I actually could have written several more paragraphs because there is so much depth to Seeing Red. It also has the positive of being told from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, still a rare find and feat in literature for young people. Read it today. And expect to hear news of awards in the upcoming months. I’ll even go one step further: I have read the majority of Newbery winners, and in my opinion Seeing Red is Newbery-worthy.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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