Young Adult Book Review: 'Burning' by Elana K. Arnold
Delacorte Press, 2013
I love the premise of Burning, aptly summarized in the tagline on the jacket cover:
Small-town boy. Gypsy girl. Desert Summer.
I love the setting of Gypsum, Nevada, a mining town, on the verge of collapse, and the juxtaposition of the hard-working townspeople packing up to find lives elsewhere after the mine shuts down while privileged people pay hundreds of dollars to play hippie at the Burning Man festival just miles away.
I love the theme of conflicted transition, that is reflected in Gypsum native Ben's situation - having received a track scholarship to attend the University of California while his friends and their families are forced to seek lives elsewhere without clear direction - and also in Lala's life as the daughter of a traveling gypsy family who is starting to question her family's traditions and wonder if the only lifestyle she has ever known is really the kind of life that she wants to lead.
But while Ben and his Gypsum friends and family (including a younger brother, who is gay) are complex and believable, the character of Lala falls flat. Perhaps it is her stilted and formal manner of speaking (which presumably reflects her unique cultural upbringing) or her unfailing stoicism in the face of tumultuous life changes, or simply the complete foreignness of her family's traditions that sets her apart from the other characters in the story.
Unfortunately, all of this, combined with Lala's determination to choose korkoro (freedom) over her connection with her family or her love of Ben, results in her seeming insensitive and difficult to relate to, rather than heroically independent.
It was also disappointing that the author didn't make more use of the interesting backdrop of Burning Man in the story, choosing only to end the book with the predictable image of the fiery effigy in the background.
Naïve teens will still be drawn to this story for its themes of adventure, mystery, and desert romance (not to mention the appealing cover art), but more sophisticated readers won't be completely satisfied.
Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at reneesreads.com.