[I received a review copy of this novel through Netgalley. This review was originally posted on my book blog: Iris on Books
Dust Girl left me a little conflicted. The story is good and compelling. However, the thing I couldn’t overlook is the somewhat problematic cover.
But first let me tell you what the story is about..
Dust Girl is set in Kansas during the 1930′s Dust Bowl era. Callie LeRoux grows up in a town called Slow Run together with her mother. Her father left them a long time ago, and Callie never knew him. Callie spends her days trying to scrape together enough food to live on, while also battling her health which is constantly infringed by the drought and the dust. When her mother goes missing in a dust storm, Callie is left to fend for herself. From that moment onwards she meets a number of mysterious figures, and soon finds out that she is half-fae. Caught between warring fae factions, Callie tries to reach the place where she hopes to find her mother again, helped by a boy called Jack whom she meets along the way.
The good? Dust Girl is a compelling read. The world building is well executed, and the dust bowl comes to life, even to one who had not even heard of the particular period or setting before. Moreover, the plot has enough twists and engaging characters in it to make you want to keep reading. It has a certain addictive quality that has you turning the pages.
What surprised me most – in a good way – was how Zettel takes the idea of warring fae factions, and a girl caught in between those factions, to comment on the idea of a divide between races, which I assume was still highly influential in 1930′s Kansas. You see, Callie isn’t just half-fae, she is also the child of a white mother and a black father. The story features her commenting on the need for her to keep a low profile, and how she has limited access to buildings as a consequence of her parentage. For example:'My papa was a black man. That made me a black girl. That meant there was a whole world of things I couldn’t do, and places I couldn’t go.'
Callie spends her childhood trying to pass as white, but this means keeping out of the sun at all times, in fear of her skin turning dark. She has to leave this relative safety behind when she leaves home after her mother gets lost. And she and Jake have to resort to different, sometimes magical, tactics in order to secure safe passage.
Part of the novel directly ties in the warring fae factions with questions of race, for one of the factions is represented by black characters. I have to be honest here and say that I am not exactly sure how well this works out, I think I’d have to wait and see how the story progresses in the second installment of this series. The introduction of this theme is not always completely seamless. Nevertheless, I will say that there is an interesting subversion of some stereotypes. And by introducing the reader to different strata of fae society, Dust Girl also comments on assumptions of privilege based on the intersection of race and class.
But the centrality of race is exactly where the one big problem I had with this novel comes in, which has little to do with the story provided but more so with the design of the book itself. You see, for a story that makes race such an integral part of the narrative, there is something lacking in the book cover provided. I have always only followed the debate surrounding whitewashing from the sidelines, and I have to admit that I didn’t even know what it was until I found out through reading other book blogs. And so I am loath to call out white washing of this cover, how do I know if I define it correctly? But I am questioning why this cover was chosen.
For the first half of the book I might have been a little surprised, but able to let the girl on the cover pass as Callie, because Zettel establishes that Callie was able to pass as white, even though her ‘black hair was my mother’s worst enemy. “So coarse,” she’d mutter while she combed the tangles out.’
(and thus not as portrayed on the cover). But, apart from the description of Callie’s hair, she is clearly identified as from mixed race, and recognisable as such to the other characters, later on in the story. So yes, I lean towards calling white washing. And particularly because race takes such a central place in this story, I admit I was left disappointed and uncomfortable. Which is a shame, really, because the novel provides interesting entry-points to a more layered discussion of race, which might have been more central to reviews had not the cover been so distracting.