The perils of being a woman in a small town. A Review of Valentine

Review:

Valentine

By Elizabeth Wetmore

Rating: 4/5

Genre: Historical Fiction

QUILTBAG Main Character: No 

QUILTBAG Minor Character: No

Main Character of Color: Several characters are POC but they are not the main characters

Bechdel Test: Yes

Summary: The town of Odessa, TX saw an oil boom that is slowly starting to calm down. In a place of both immense wealth and immense disparity, a brutal attack on a 14 year-old Latinx girl named Gloria will upend many lives.  Following the narrative of multiple women, Valentine asks how far we are willing to go to do what we must.

Let’s Get A Little Deep:

I am obsessed with small-town stories. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Kansas in a city that seems absolutely tiny compared to the West Coast town I live in now or the D.C. area I spent a few years living in. Although I would prefer never to live in a small town again, I love stories that take place there. I am particularly fond of stories that don’t idolize these places and instead call out their more problematic aspects. I picked up Valentine eager to read such a novel.

Valentine is a novel that asks big questions. It asks why a white girl at 14 is considered a child while a brown girl of the same age is considered adult. It asks what you are willing to do to help others. It asks what choices you would make if you knew the whole town was watching and judging. 

Let’s tackle each of these questions individually and how the story poses them. We’ll do so without spoilers, of course.

The book begins with a violent sexual attack of a fourteen year old girl, Gloria, who happens to be Latinx. The town, mostly white except for the immigrant population who does the unwanted labor of said white people, unsurprisingly takes the side of the white man who attacked her. She is practically a woman, they say. You know how those girls act. This reaction doesn’t sit well for the lead characters in the novel. The women snap at the suggestion that Gloria is anything other than a child. Although this story takes place in 1976, this language echoes a similar language we hear today. The reader is, understandably, disgusted which forces them to question why we are still hearing this same rhetoric. 

With that in mind, the author shows us how helping those around us ultimately brings a sense of peace to our lives. Every character in the novel is forced to choose between an easy, safe path or helping someone who needs it more than they do. Although these choices have long rippling consequences for the characters, Valentine would argue that these consequences are nothing compared to the weight of guilt doing nothing does. 

The community makes it clear that they stand on the side of the white man, not the young brown girl. This in turn means the women who occupy the narration of the novel are forced to swim upstream against the hate that flows through their community. This means they often feel alone and completely unsafe. But it also brings those who stand against this hate closer together, helps them form strong, lasting bonds between other women who understand them. Valentine constantly reminds the reader that small towns cast long shadows, and it is up to us to shine light into those shadows, no matter how dark. 

Therein lies the heart of the novel. It insists upon action, pushes the reader to do better not only by their community but by themselves. It says that a life lived in fear of what others think is far worse than a life lived in pursuit of what is just and right. It shows you the darkest heart of a small town that could, and does, exist today. Then it shows you paths to help change it. The only question remaining is if you’re willing to follow the examples of these strong women or if you’ll give in to a town that thinks the only right is white and male.

Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love Valentine? Consider making a donation to RAICES. This is one of my favorite non-profits and they need help now more than ever. You can also find me on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@yasaminnb) for editing my posts.

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