Robert E. Lee Is Dead by Danielle Evans, 2008
The magic trick:
Showing the messy combination of lessons and mistakes that make up the high school experience
Like yesterday’s SSMT feature, “Brownies” by ZZ Packer, today’s story features a young protagonist figuring out how to define herself among and against the people around her. Whereas “Brownies” went all the way back to elementary school, “Robert E. Lee Is Dead” covers the four-year high school career of Crystal, or CeeCee as she becomes known to her friends.
It’s an odd story in a lot of ways. It focuses mainly on a friendship between Crystal and Geena. Geena plays the traditional bad influence role, though it’s clear that she’s mostly opening up Crystal’s confidence to be her true self more than anything.
So who is Crystal’s true self?
That’s the story’s key question, and the vagueness that we’re left with as an answer is why I say it’s an odd story. The narration tells us a lot about Crystal, skimming over many major incidents throughout her high school career with but brief mentions. We know she’s a talented student, but the story mostly shows us her moments of rebellion. It’s an interesting mix.
As a result, even after 30-plus pages, I’m not sure we’re any closer to understanding her than we were during the introductory paragraphs.
But that’s not a criticism of the story. Frankly, it’s the selling point.
Who really knows anything about themselves as they graduate from high school? High school is a mish mash of lessons, mistakes, and embarrassingly ill-conceived ideas.
This story gives you that unresolved mess of a teenage character brilliantly.
And that’s quite a trick on Evans’s part.
Geena and I lived in Eastdale, a block past the one-mile mark that meant we could have ridden the bus if we’d wanted to. I walked because I liked the scenery and hated my classmates. Geena walked because freshmen rode the bus, and no one, especially not me, would have dared tell her that she was a freshman. I knew her name already–everybody did–but Geena was a girl like sunshine; if you were a girl like I was back then, you didn’t look at her directly.
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