Finding Her Moral Compass
Several years ago when I was contemplating writing a young adult novel myself, I read widely in the genre but found nothing like Meredith Sue Willis’s new young adult novel Meli’s Way. I think it’s a masterpiece: a profound exploration of the technology-driven, terrorist-threatened, family-fragmented world in which young people today come of age.
The book is an up-to-this-moment contemporary depiction of a young high school student in New York City finding her way with very little guidance (but a lot of love) from her single parent mom with a mysterious past. It’s fast-paced with meaningful action but also ample time for Meli (short for Melisandre), who’s somewhat nerdy and independent but completely herself, to reflect on whether she’s losing or finding her “moral compass.” For much of the story, it’s a bit of both. Willis immerses her reader in Meli’s compelling journey that is as entertaining as it is deeply satisfying.
The River not the Rocks
Meli tells us right up front what to expect: “There’s an explosion at the end of this story, and a little bit of sex in the middle . . .” Then she reassures us: “ . . . but those things are just bumps in the road or maybe boulders in a river. They made me change direction, but I’m the river, not the rocks.” As attention-getters go, that’s one of the most powerful I’ve ever read—and accurate. Librarians, teachers and other adults need not worry about the novel’s being too graphically sexual. While Willis hits a couple of serious social taboos head-on, she does so, in my opinion, tastefully and responsibly; the result—for Meli and perhaps for the young reader as well—is a leap forward in intellectual and emotional maturity.
The first outstanding quality I noticed was how ultra-modern Meli’s Way is in its treatment of food, parenting, divorce, multiculturalism, therapy and marriage; for example, when Meli calls herself “illegitimate,” her mom dismisses it with a wave of her hand, saying that means nothing these days. While Mom frets over many things about her daughter—such as education, fashion and friends—she gives not even short shrift to such an outmoded concept. It’s Willis’s way of signaling that her book has much bigger sushi to swallow than such archaic societal shibboleths. As we’ll see, there’s no dearth of real issues to examine here.
Comparisons and contrasts abound: the elite, private Cranfort School Meli has been attending versus the public Ciudad (“See You Dad”) School of the Future to which she transfers; Cranfort’s neurotic American “whitegirls” versus the colorfully diverse charter school students; natural versus artificial beauty; Meli’s affluence versus her new friend Gray Jacobs’ relative poverty; New York, where most of the action takes place, versus Italy, site of her summer visit to her father (and a life-changing experience); and finally: activism versus terrorism. Multiple cultural and religious communities, from Baptist to Buddhist, Jewish to Muslim, rub against each other, sometimes creating sparks. Willis’s cast of interesting characters—with not a stereotype among them—fully embodies these cultural contrasts, delineating themes such as deception versus truth; isolation versus community; types of families; and the different meanings of love, while giving her readers plenty to reward their attention.
Like secrets: from anonymous phone callers (who’s “the dragon?”) to Meli’s mother’s buried past (which eventually comes to light). Like issues: the kids of Ciudad are not sheltered by faculty in the school’s open, questioning atmosphere, where everything gets discussed: sex, pregnancy and personal responsibility; war and nonviolence; types of love; and the presence of evil. There is no preaching, but there’s often passion and humor; for example, I smiled when Meli’s admiring classmate Ari adopts Ayn Rand’s Objectivism over the summer. But Ari provides more than humor; sometimes annoying, Meli’s loquacious but lovable wannabe boyfriend is a necessary catalyst to break through Meli’s hard shell of introversion.
Epiphanies & Revelations
Speaking of breakthroughs, Meli gets more than she bargained for by changing schools; in fact, her experiences at Ciudad shatter one stereotype after another for her, such as the traditional split between jocks and nerds. In one memorably moving scene, Meli reluctantly joins a volleyball game and in the process “is baptized by blood” into the community and, by implication, the human race. More importantly, her relationship with Tim, her social studies teacher and advisor, is the source of her greatest epiphanies, providing dramatic surprises and revelations galore. The result, as our heroine predicted at the beginning, is an explosion in more ways than one: a shattering climax that changes Meli’s world (and perhaps the reader’s) forever.
My Hand the Animal
Willis’s writing is concrete and credible. I found the protagonist’s voice believably precocious. Meli’s metaphors often delight and stun, for example, “my hand was like this little tan brown animal stuck to the end of my arm, doing what it wanted, not what I wanted,” and “his voice was rich and bubbly like sauce cooking slowly.” But it’s the insights at the heart of this novel that provide its lasting value. Far beyond mere entertainment, Meli’s Way reveals Willis’s deep understanding of young people; it provides knowledge based on her characters’ (and perhaps her own) experience that could take readers to another level of maturity. At the very least, they will be given plenty of nutritious, non-fattening food for thought. Copies can be obtained for $15.95 at www.montemayorpress.com.