Review: The Revenant

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2011.

The Plot: 1896. Willie Hammond, 17, knows what she doesn’t want; she doesn’t want to leave school, abandoning her (and her father’s) dreams of an excellent education. She doesn’t want to return to the family farm, with her mother, stepfather, and half-siblings. She doesn’t want the endless toil and drudgery of being treated as a hired hand by her mother and stepfather.

So Willie runs away, pretending to be Angelina McClure, English teacher, heading to the Cherokee Female Seminary in Indian Territory. How hard can it be, Willie wonders? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the first thing is the students aren’t a bunch of ignorant children desperate to learn their ABCs. They are elegant, wealthy, educated, and sophisticated. Willie is probably younger than some of her students! Speaking of students, Willie also didn’t count on handsome Eli Sevenstar, a friendly (and slightly flirtatious) senior at the nearby boy’s school.

What Willie really didn’t count on was the ghost — the ghost who haunts the school, who haunts her room, and is growing more dangerous every day.

The Good: The two things that come to mind first about The Revenant are “ghost story” and “historical fiction.”

Ghost story: The year before Willie arrives at the school, Ella Blackstone, a senior, drowned in the nearby river and her boyfriend ran away. Ella’s ghost makes herself known in both subtle ways — cold spots, tapping sounds — and more dangerous ways — a teacup breaks, cutting a girl, another falls down steps, a third breaks a leg. Students and teachers alike whisper about exorcisms and seances. Willie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does believe that there is more to the story of Ella’s disappearance. The Revenant is a satisfying ghost story, balancing the supernatural with mystery.

Historical Fiction: The Revenant does what I like best, shining a light on history that is either little known or little covered. Here, it is the Cherokee Female Seminary as well as the Indian Territory of the late 19th century. After one of Willie’s thoughtless comments to her fellow teacher, Miss Adair (by the way, Miss Adair is a graduate of the Seminary) (“who would have thought I’d need such fine clothes for Indian Territory?”), she is told “there are many different tribes, each with its own traditions and customs, you know. And each tribe has it’s own ideas of what it means to be civilized.” For the 19th century Cherokees, Willie (and the readers) learns about different tensions based on wealth, status, family, full/mixed blood status, and “progressive” or “traditional” families. The author’s note details the research she did, including review and feedback. Further information about that research is in these interviews: a three part interview at Novel Novice; The Apocalypsies Interview; Article at the Tahlequah Daily Press; the YA Highway Interview.

But now, on to what fascinated me most about The Revenant: no, not the ghost story. No, not the history. And at this point, there will be spoilers. So, stop reading now if you don’t like any type of spoilers.

You were warned.

What fascinates me most is Willie herself. Gensler is rather fearless in her depiction of Willie. Even though Willie is telling the story, it quickly becomes apparent that Willie is far from perfect. She’s immature, quick to judge, has run away from home, and as a teacher is in over her head. Also? While she is a teacher (or, rather, pretending to be a teacher and older), she engages in a flirtation with Eli Sevenstar, who, while not Willie’s student, is still a student. As mentioned above, Willie makes statements that are offensive to the modern reader such as “an Indian in law school?” (By the way, the person she is talking about? Eli!) Rest assured, this bias ends, but it’s both shocking and unsettling to read. Such casual bigotry did (and still does) exist, and Gensler takes risks by having her main character say and think these things.

Further risk taking is shown in Willie’s “speak first, regardless of who is around” attitude. The comment about law school? Is made in front of her students! Yet Willie never wonders if part of the antagonism she gets from these same students may be motivated by the things Willie said around them.

Miss Adair, who becomes Olivia, a good friend, believes in spirits and seances. Willie’s reaction? A laugh and “I find this notion of spirits very backward.” Later, Willie excuses her rudeness with “I was too brash, just like my papa. It’s an unfortunate fault, for its left me terribly lonely. I should have apologized long ago . . . .” That is how immature Willie is: she excuses her own mean statements with “oops, that’s just how I am!” and then considers the bad consequences in terms of the impact on herself (loneliness) not on Olivia.

Willie’s flaws are also highlighted in her teaching. Willie does have some good, inspired moments; and not surprisingly, she finds teaching those younger than herself easier than teaching those closer to her own age. Willie avoids doing what she doesn’t want to do or what she doesn’t know how to do — for months, she avoids marking her student’s essays. Imagine never getting a grade from your teacher! I love, love, love Willie for having these faults and find them very age-appropriate and believable, and it helped make Willie a full, real person. I love that Gensler lets Willie be real. Truthfully, an untrained seventeen year old pretending to be a teacher would act just like Willie does! Willie has the potential to be a good teacher, and that shows in her passion for literature (especially Shakespeare), but when it comes to things like grading and discipline, Willie has a lot to learn.

Just like my papa.” You’ve been thinking, OK, this analysis of Willie’s character isn’t really spoilery. But it is; because of Papa. And the real “revenant,” or ghost, is not Ella.

It’s Papa; not as a ghost, but as the father who shaped his daughter. A father who was a drunk, who played his daughter against his wife, who preferred to dream instead of to do and instilled in his daughter a feeling of superiority over those doers who actually work, like her mother and stepfather. That Papa is a drunk is not revealed until the final chapters, but some readers may pick up on clues before then that Papa was not the perfect specimen that Willie believes him to be. Willie loves her father, admires him, respects him. When I got to the end of The Revenant, I suddenly saw Willie as a child of an alcoholic and it shifted how I saw Willie and her actions in the first part of the book. Willie worships her father, excuses him because he is a charmer, and dismisses the parent who was left to pick up the pieces. It takes Willie a long, long, long time to even admit to her father’s faults  (“If Papa had been a drunk, [my mother] drove him to it“) and even longer to stop blaming her mother. One confrontation leaves her mother saying, “You think you can take care of yourself, but you are too much like your father in doing so — lying, cutting corners, hurting others.”

And that is what I like about Willie and Gensler’s risk in writing Willie: because for almost 300 pages Willie has been doing all that her mother says, lying, cutting corners, hurting others. She’s been her father’s daughter, but because she’s been lying to the reader about her dear, perfect, Papa, the reader doesn’t realize that something is happening other than immaturity. What’s also risky of Gensler is that Willie’s year away teaching and ghost-hunting does nothing to force Willie to stop and confront her own past. It’s not until Willie is forced to go home (I warned you!) that she has to stop running from her own history, her own ghosts.

So, come to The Revenant for the ghost story and the history; but leave thinking of the way children are molded by their parents and how that haunts them their entire lives. Who is brave enough to exorcise away the lovely fantasy of a doting father?