I read Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy a few weeks ago when it was released, and though I planned to write a review immediately, I had to take some time to process my feelings on this one. The controversy surrounding the novel was drowning out my initial reaction upon finishing it. Now that I have had time to distance myself from the novel and the buzz of the book world, I feel I can write an objective review. My initial reaction was positive. I loved the story, the characters, and setting, and I thought the depiction of poverty, families, and responsibilities was accurate.
The story is set post-Katrina in Eulogy, Mississippi, a small Gulf Coast community devastated after the storm over ten years ago. In this conservative, southern town, Ramona Blue stands out. Standing at 6 foot and 3 inches tall with bright blue hair, Ramona is a seventeen year old girl and one of two lesbians in her small town. After Hurricane Katrina, Ramona’s family lost their family home and moved into a small trailer, where they live for the next decade. Ramona struggles with her responsibilities to her family, working two jobs to help ends meet for her father and pregnant sister, all while attending school. In an ever shrinking town, and even smaller home, Ramona faces up to what her future holds. Or rather, what doesn’t seem possible. The one thing Ramona knows is who she is. She is a hard worker, a good friend, a beloved sister, and a responsible person. And, she knows she likes girls. Then, her childhood friend, Freddie, returns to Eulogy. At first, Ramona finds comfort in her renewed friendship with Freddie and her rediscovery of her love for swimming. But, her feelings for Freddie challenge everything Ramona knows about herself and her place in the world.
Though the novel felt overly long at times, Ramona and her friends are endearing characters, and Julie Murphy doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. The novel explores issues of identity, sexuality, teenage pregnancy, class, poverty, and race. What could easily have become a checklist of hot button issues used to sell books felt authentic as I read. Ramona’s first-person narration allows the reader to see the world through her eyes, and because we see Ramona make sense of her experiences, they feel more genuine. For instance, when Ramona and her friends decide to take a swim in someone’s pool and are caught, most of them think it’s funny. Just teenage hijinks. But, Ramona discovers that for Freddie, it isn’t as simple as that. We see Ramona come to realize the ways in which Freddie’s black body is policed and how such “hijinks” could have very different consequences for a person of color.
The book, despite its diversity, has received a number of 1-star ratings on Goodreads, and many of them for the blurb on the jacket cover alone. And since the novel’s release, many have taken to blogs and magazines to debate whether the novel is lesbophobic or not. The problem many people have with Ramona Blue is that it seems to be yet another story about a lesbian who goes straight once she meets the right guy. We’ve all seen those movies and read those books. And there are too many of them using this trope. However, I honestly don’t believe Ramona Blue is one of them.
First, Ramona struggles with her feelings for Freddie, and she feels guilty, ashamed, and confused. Throughout the novel, Ramona has confidence in who she is and how she identifies herself, but when Freddie comes along, she doesn’t know how to make sense of feelings or her identity anymore.
“If I’m being honest with myself, there’s a small part of me that is sad every time I kiss Freddie, because I feel like little by little the person I thought I was is disappearing. Almost like I’ve lost what makes me special. “
Rather, I felt the novel examined the complexities of identity and sexuality in a way that I don’t see often enough.
Second, though Freddie and Ramona develop feelings for one another, the novel is not a romantic one. In other words, that is not the focus. Instead, the novel’s main storyline–as I see it–is one about a girl who feels confined by her town, her family, her circumstances, and even labels. It’s a novel about a girl coming to terms with feeling like she doesn’t fit and is bursting at the seams–figuratively and literally.
And this is where I think the novel is most successful. I identified strongly with Ramona Blue’s depiction of poverty, of the working class, and family. Ramona is a teenage girl, working two jobs and going to school, to help provide for her family. Though she dreams of getting out of her small town and going to college, she feels a responsibility to her father and her pregnant teen-aged sister, who is not ready to be a mother and has a dead-beat boyfriend.
When movies and books depict poverty, what they often miss is the way that poverty affects people’s familial relationships and sense of responsibilities. People don’t talk about the fact that people living in poverty will often feel that it is their responsibility to sacrifice their dreams and aspirations in order to take care of family or problems that really aren’t theirs to take care of. I don’t mean the way that we all feel a responsibility to care for our families. It is stronger than that. I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of my students.
With poverty also comes the responsibility of figuring things out and making things happen when there doesn’t seem a way. When you live in poverty, you develop an understanding that, sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Not in the way that it does for other people, at least. In one scene, Ramona is anxious about what the future holds, especially for her sister and the baby. As she tries to figure out how she can help without sacrificing everything she wants, she has a conversation with her father:
“It’ll work out,” he says. “Always does.”
He says that, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you’ve gotta make it work out, and I think that’s what my dad never quite got. That’s why we are still living in the same deteriorating trailer that was only ever meant to be a temporary fix.
Anyone who knows me will tell you to never say, “It’ll work out,” to me. My response will be Ramona’s.
What I most appreciated about the novel is the end. Ramona realizes that she is not as confined as she thought, but she doesn’t magically win a scholarship to a big university or move to a large city. Rather, the ending is more realistic than that. Some things work out (because people make them work out) and others don’t.
So, is the novel without problems? No. But, I found it delightful and absolutely think its worth reading and talking about.