Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Terrorist

Brief Synopsis:

This book gets a lot of flack for negatively portraying Islam and Arabs. I remember that one of the girls in my class did a book report on this when we were in middle school (it was a French class review, too--how weird is that?) and talked about how she thought it was racist. And considering Caroline B. Cooney's protagonists are all wealthy, entitled American girls (and I grew up in Spoiled White Kid Central), that's saying something. So when I say this protagonist is obnoxious, I mean it. Not even her target audience liked her.

The main character of The Terrorist is teenager Laura Williams, an American living with her family in London for a year due to her father's work. In the first chapter, her younger brother, Billy, is handed a package that explodes and kills him (we're gonna need another Billy!). Laura and the experts, including her bodyguard, Mr. Evans, decide that it's the work of terrorists. Laura even suspects someone at her school, London International Academy, a school rife with foreigners. Everyone in her grade becomes a suspect (why her grade? Billy was in sixth grade. Is this supposed to make sense? I don't even know anymore).

Then about a week after her brother's death, a Muslim girl in her grade, Jehran, who up until now has been generally unfriendly towards Americans, starts making friendly overtures towards Laura and asks to use Billy's passport. Seems Jehran's brother plans to marry her off to some creepy dude in the old country and she wants to use the passport to flee to America. Laura, of course, decides to go along with this instead of suspecting the one person who has something to gain from Billy's death. Laura's various multi ethnic friends have been paying attention and intervene at the last minute by filming a United Colors of Benetton ad--er, by phoning Mr. Evans and telling him their suspicions. And then Jehran is detained and it turns out she planned the whole thing because her family was terrorists (but she really was going to be married off). Or something. I don't even know.

  • One of Laura's fellow students is Eddie, which is short for Erdam Yafi. Eddie has a crush on Laura which he expresses by constantly tugging on her hair. According to Laura, Eddie is fine for school dances but not boyfriend material. Later, Eddie says that when he grows up, he will participate in the destruction of Israel. The only pick up line more awesome than that is "Hey sexy mama, wanna kill all humans?"

  • The pro-America bent of this novel irritates me so, so much. Laura wears her denim jacket as a "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" statement after her brother dies to show she's proud of where she's from and to differentiate herself from the other foreign students. (Laura, too bad you're not Claudia Kishi, or you could totally pull off a jumpsuit made from the American flag and not look stupid.)
  • Then she goes around asking everyone in her grade where they're from in the hopes that someone will fold under questioning. Like Jimmy Hopkins, who's from Hawaii and part Japanese. When he tells her he had a grandmother who was partly Japanese, she actually says, "'That's not enough Japanese blood to look as Japanese as you do.'" Shut up, Laura. Watson and Crick are here to teach you about genetics and then to beat you to death with a solid gold double helix.
  • Every other adjective for Jehran is some form of "olive skinned" or dark skinned." Except that Billy was supposed to have looked like Jehran. So either little Billy was a tanorexic or Mama Williams has some 'splainin' to do.
  • When Mrs. Williams goes into the kitchen, all sad after Billy's death, she finds a can of Spaghetti-O's. Billy's favorite--he preferred it to a sauce that Mrs. W. made for four hours that rivaled real Italian sauce. Because Billy represents all things American. And Spaghetti-O's are American, not Italian. America=good. Did you get that? Anyway, Mrs. W. bawls and hurls the (yes we) can of Spaghetti-O's at a wall, and I suddenly wonder why she named her kid Billy Williams (his full name would be William Williams). Like are these people so dull that they couldn't think of another name? Or did Caroline B. Cooney's editor just get bored looking over this book and decide to publish it without proofreading?
  • Why is this book entitled The Terrorist? Isn't this technically just murder? Or is it always terrorism any time someone gets blown up in public?
  • Jehran is supposed to be from Iran or Iraq. No, it's not that I can't tell the difference--Laura can't remember where Jehran is from, even though she's been told hundreds of times. You know, because Americans don't know about current events? Yup, Laura decides to commit fraud with Jehran without even knowing where she's from. And without even crossing her off the terrorism list. Yep, Jimmy Hopkins is a suspect because he looks a little too Japanese, but the one person in the entire novel trying to commit a crime passes just fine. Oh, Laura, if only you'd been born a few years earlier. You'd fit in great with the Bush administration as the white Condi Rice.
  • How come we're never told what terrorist group Jehran's family belongs to? In the end, it's never revealed where they're from, what they're doing, or why they're doing it. Was Caroline B. Cooney trying to illustrate the timeless nature of evil by not tying them down to a specific entity? Or did Scholastic not want to shell out for a research assistant? You can tell this book was written pre 9/11, though, because otherwise it would have been "al-Quaeda" this and "Osama bin" that every five minutes and crap like, "If we hadn't gone into Iraq, more little boys like Billy would have died. You don't...hate children, and Mom, baseball, apple pie, Abe Lincoln and America, [dramatic pause], do you?" Actually, I hate most of those things. Bring on the digestive biscuits, Winston Churchill, and cricket!
  • The book is sprinkled with little details about Billy. Like he loved to sell American goods obtained from family friends to kids at the LIA. And he loved to dismantle the family's wardrobes--Laura would often come home to find her wardrobe in pieces. Oh, and he loved to appropriate British slang. Like the time he overheard the word "plimsoll" (sneaker) and then would say in faux-Brit accent, "'I'll just plimsoll on down to the corner...'" Apparently people would meet him and want to smack him at first but end up loving him. I just want to smack him. Is it wrong that I'm happy about an eleven year old boy dying?
  • At one point, Jehran is planning a slumber party for a group of girls that conveniently includes Laura. Even though Jehran made a huge point out of avoiding the non Muslim girls up until now. Laura? Laura, are you paying attention? (The stupidity, it burns.) Jehran smiles coolly at some girl who deigns to criticize her sleepover food. Right after she sweeps her hair past her swarthy skin and blinks her dark, other worldly eyes that have never known the taste of pure American grade Twinkies:
It was a Euro-smile. Not broad and easy like American smiles, but thin with superiority. Euro-smiles made Laura crazy. She wanted to say: Listen, if you were really so good, you'd be number one in the world. And you're not. So there.
  • Wow, even the smiles are fatter in America. But if your poor attempts at terrorist catching are any reflection of the U.S., we're not number one by a long shot. I really wish this book HAD taken place in more recent years so I could yell things at Laura like, "Weapons of Mass Destruction, HA" and "Osama Bin Laden is where now?"
  • Laura thinks that American desserts are superior to Brit ones. (Surprise, surprise.) Before Billy died, she was given a package from America full of Twinkies which she hoarded from him. What's the matter with you people? You're in the land where Cadbury is plentiful and you want Twinkies? Then again, I have an unhealthy obsession with the Devil Dog. I still prefer European desserts, though. So let's see, on the list of things better in America, we have snacks and smiles. Watch as Laura later expounds on how much better the U.S. passport is than...well, anything. Why? Because it's from AMERIKER! AMERICA, FUCK YEAH! Oh, sorry, got caught up there. The Spaghetti-O's of patriotism fell over and hit me on the head, and...yeah. Okay, I'm better now--and this book won't snark itself, so on with the show.
  • At the sleepover, Jehran confides in Laura about how her parents and siblings are all dead (slaughtered by whomever came to power in her country--details are vague). Then she talks about how her one surviving brother is going to force her to marry a man back home and how this guy is 56 and already has wives and will force her to pump out babies for the rest of her life. (Hey, is Bill Henrickson finally taking a fourth? Alright!) Laura's first reaction: "Is...he, um, nice?" I hurl the Spaghetti-O's at Laura and wait for her to blow up.
  • Laura and Jehran's plan, in detail, is to steal Billy's passport from her parents' house. Then, Laura will buy tickets in cash to America. (Jehran has access to all kinds of wealth because...well, just go with it, okay?) After that, they'll pretend to be on this class trip to Edinburgh so their families won't worry (in Laura's case) or have their daughter stoned (in Jehran's case). Jehran's family will go on being all terrorist-y, Laura's mom will stare at the can of Spaghetti-O's and bemoan the death of her culinarily ungifted son. At the airport, Laura will cut off the Jay-ster's pony tail and she'll be transformed into an eleven year old white boy. They can't sneak suitcases out of the house, so Laura will tell airport officials that their Grandma's going to buy them all new clothes in the states. Really? Grandma's going to get you new socks and underwear, too? Stupid Laura.
  • So it turns out that Jehran's family is made up of terrorists who killed Billy. Why? Because they were evil terrorists who hate America. Why are they killing a random little boy? why did they ask a sixteen year old girl for advice about who to kill? Sigh. Don't ask. Jehran chose Billy because she looked like him so she could use his passport to escape. So she's a terrorist AND she wanted to escape. Does this make sense to you? Don't worry. It's not you. Jehran ends up going to a foster home and then walking out a few months later, never to be heard from again.
In conclusion? Laura, you're dumber than Janie Johnson. Hell, you're dumber than a box of bricks--if a strange man offers you a ride, I say take it. But are you as dumb as the protagonists from Driver's Ed--two spoiled rich kids who (with a third) steal a stop sign that results in a woman's death? Time to revisit that glorious tome and find out!