On "American Heart," the latest from Laura Moriarty

I’ve been a longtime fan of Laura Moriarty’s writing since I first heard her talk about "The Center of Everything" in the tiny cafe of the now defunct Borders bookstore in 2004. Her fully fleshed characters and well-developed plots often have me reading into the wee hours of the morning. Her latest book, "American Heart," is no different.

Labeled as a young adult dystopian novel, the story is so grounded in realism that it feels like many of her other books which revolve around characters contending with the choice to stand by the social and legal expectations of their worlds or strike out on paths they feel are right and humane. In this vision of the United States, Muslim-Americans must submit themselves to registries and are forced into detainment camp.

The main character of "American Heart," Sarah-Mary, is a Midwestern teenager waiting to escape the confines of her all-too-small world. Her mother is a footnote in the lives of Sarah-Mary and her brother Caleb, always chasing the golden ticket of romance and wealth through men she meets on the internet. The two children live with their authoritarian aunt, who has enrolled them in a private Baptist school where no real learning takes place, and Sarah-Mary suffers through the 24/7 monitoring by her new guardian.

On one bitterly cold winter evening, Sarah-Mary finds herself searching for a brother she loves, but whom she has hurt. For the love of her brother, she then promises to help Sadaf, a fugitive Muslim woman, to safety, and because Sarah-Mary is stubborn and headstrong, safety doesn’t mean across state lines, it means all the way to Canada.

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by Lawrence Public Library Staff

The book is told entirely from the point of view of Sarah-Mary, apropos of the author’s own identity as a white woman. With Caleb as her only real family, she feels she must fulfill her promise, not only out of love, but also to prove she is not like her mother. Her stubbornness in all things, whether it’s retrieving Sadaf’s $300 when she gets ripped off by a sketchy fake ID artist, the glacial evolution of her perceptions of Muslims or even her perseverance to see Sadaf all the way to Canada, is not unlike many teenagers I know, and not a departure from many of the protagonists in YA fiction.

We do see Sarah-Mary’s slow evolution towards empathy and acceptance through the novel, which happens at an expected pace, given the filtered news and blatant propaganda that she has been exposed to through her life (the internet was banned at her aunt’s house, not to mention social media, where unsavory ideas could easily plant themselves in a young, impressionable mind).

Though Sadaf needs someone to book hotel rooms and cover for her in order to get to the northern border, she remains a rock throughout the novel, never swallowing Sarah-Mary’s racist comments and questions. Their discussions range from family to politics to Jeopardy, and Sarah-Mary eventually finds a deep respect for a woman who worked hard to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and who moved to a new country and culture for increased social and economic opportunities.

Sadaf’s own heartbreak and betrayal leave her tight-lipped and terse through the beginnings of the book, but as the promise of freedom and safety open up the closer the pair moves north, so does Sadaf, speaking of her friends, her family, and especially the son she feels she abandoned. Any perspective shifting from Sarah-Mary to Sadaf (which could be a compelling storytelling element) could easily wander into a cultural appropriation minefield, and the author avoided this through the use of a consistent first-person voice from Sarah-Mary’s perspective.

Ultimately, this is a story of how someone grapples with the endgame of the racism they were born and raised into. Moriarty’s exemplary pacing and plotting make "American Heart" a satisfying read.

If you would like to hear Moriarty speak about "American Heart," please join us on Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM in the Lawrence Public Library auditorium. The Raven Book Store will sell copies of "American Heart" and a signing will follow the presentation.

— Kristin Soper is the events coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.