Sister Mischief is a gay romp through the suburbs of Minneapolis. Gay as in not straight, and romp as in young people up to no good in all the best ways.
It introduces Esme Rockett (aka MC Ferocious) and her crew of friends/collaborators: Marcy (DJ SheStorm), Tess (The ConTessa), and Rowie (MC Rohini). As a Jewish(ish?) lesbian, a heterosexual butch backslid Catholic, a rebel Lutheran teen queen, and a desi thrift store genius, these ladies don’t exactly blend into the background of Holyhill — a place pretty shamelessly defined by its SWASP (Straight White Anglo Saxon Protestant) majority. When their high school presents a code of conduct that bans anything related to hip-hop from the school premises, the girls take action and form a hip-hop discussion group slash gay-straight alliance. Needless to say, a book’s worth of trouble and goodness ensues.
I expected Sister Mischief to alienate me a little bit because I don’t listen to much hip-hop, but I’m happy to report that it’s completely accessible to anyone who knows what it is to be young and in love with any music scene, whether as a performer or just a fan. The girls do occasionally come off a bit like music professors expounding on theses about the roles of race, gender, and sexuality in hip-hop. They are portrayed as a pretty nerdy crew, so perhaps this is justified, but it did give me a little ache for the youthful state of just loving that is part of what makes music such an intense experience for teenagers. In any case, the rhymes Ez and Rowie throw down are awesome and add something cool and authentic to the story, so that’s a plus.
I was impressed with Goode’s frank portrayal of teenage sexuality and casual drug use. With drugs in particular, it seems like too often YA authors feel the need to throw this veneer of this-is-what-the-cool-people-do-but-it’s-not-really-cool over it. In this book, as in real life, smoking up isn’t about being cool or not; it’s just one of the things you can do with your brain and your friends.
I don’t know if real-life teenage girls ever have these intense, beautiful four-way friendships like you read about in books, but this one is pretty convincingly constructed. The book takes place over the course of a single school year, but it establishes a lot of history along the way. Too many books give multi-girl friendships flimsy origin stories like meeting in the sandbox and being inseparable from that day forth, which I think belies the complex nature of what it’s really like to be a human who delights in the companionship of certain other humans. These girls love each other’s guts in all directions, but that love is not on entirely even footing. Some of the ties that bind them are older than others, some are more easily imperiled, and some are taut with sexual tension.
But there are some things about the ways relationships are drawn in this book that were a little irksome to me. For example, there are certain conversations that seem to keep being repeated on the page. Certainly things tend to come up over and over again when you’re dealing with issues like cultural differences, coming out, a renegade mother, et cetera, but at times I wish the text could have been a little more principle-of-the-iceberg about them.
There was also one character, Mary Ashley Baumgarten (or MashBaum), who I never quite believed in. She’s Tess’ former comrade, an intensely nasty SWASP who has it out for Tess’ new friends, and is particularly fixated on exposing them all as homosexuals (which not all of them are). My experiences as a high school queer speak to the fact that such meanies exist, but MashBaum lacks the subtlety that allows a bigot to really get under one’s skin. I kept wanting to see something in her that would make her original friendship with Tess evident, but she was just pure blunt evil. Maybe this comes of seeing her through Esme’s eyes, but given how carefully she observes everyone else, I was disappointed that she never caught a whiff of MashBaum’s humanity. There was really fertile ground here for exploring how a person can make a choice to be unpleasant and use religion as an excuse for that behavior, but not much came up — at least not with MashBaum. There is plenty of discussion elsewhere in the book about how to re-envision a life of faith so that it doesn’t exclude and oppress people.
On the subject of How To, this book is a pretty good style guide for having fun and retaining your sanity and self-worth when you’re stuck in a situation where a lot of people just aren’t going to like you, or even be civil about it. Sister Mischief reminded me of a time when I had to call on a kind of strength that hasn’t been required of me since I was in Ez’s shoes. It’s not that life is harder when you’re a teenager, but the hard stuff is new and peculiar to you, and your options for for dealing with it are limited. It’s true that it gets better, but there’s also a certain kind of magic that can only happen when things aren’t so great. Sister Mischief can teach you how to cast some of those spells.
Laura Forsythe resides in Kingston, Ontario. She sings impromptu songs about household tasks and slouches about four inches off of her height most of the time, but doesn’t draw on her hands nearly as much as she used to, so they may make an adult of her yet.