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Not by design, but it’s been a while since I read a YA book by a dude. Mosquitoland by David Arnold is another bus trip story, though very different from Kissing in America. Mim is a girl on the run, but she’s not so much running away from as running to. She’s still spinning from the loss of a relative, her parent’s divorce and moving away from her mom in Ohio. This journey does what a journey does best – shakes all that mess off her shoulders so she can see it more clearly.

I love trains. There’s a magic to being between places and on trains people have an understanding of personal space. I used to ride the bus from NYC to Boston at least once a month. Only a 4 hour ride but it lasted for days. Mouth-breathers reading over my shoulder were to be expected. Oh and they were always packed with people feasting on the most aromatic foods – fish stew happened. Surely not all rides are awful, but break downs and accidents happen and creepers abound. Mim’s experience pretty much adhere’s to Murphy’s Law, which is how it goes on a long bus trip.

mosquitoland

Mim learns through an overheard conversation between the school principal and step Kathy that her mom is sick and needs her. Already ripe for an excuse to leave, she steals step Kathy’s coffee can of savings, grabs her journal and clothes and buys herself a Greyhound ticket to Cincinnati. She departs her new mosquito ridden Mississippi town with only about 1000 miles to go.

From the very beginning Mim has all sorts of great ideas. She stops taking her bipolar meds and instead writes letters to her soon-to-be baby sister Izzy, named after her aunt who knew all about psychopharmaceuticals. Though Mim would rather avoid “the uncomfortable nearness of strangers”, she counts herself lucky to land Arlene as a seat neighbor. Arlene is a sweet lady also on a mission who smells like cookies and admires Mim’s awesome 80’s shoes.

All my life, I’ve been searching for my people, and all my life, I’ve come up empty. At some point, and I don’t know when, I accepted isolation.

I liked Mim’s voice and that she doesn’t always take the easy way out. She’s smart and opens up to connecting with people however fleeting the encounters. She steps out of her life when things get unbearable and questions everything, including other’s assumptions of who she is and her own assumptions of who she can be.

Mim’s a great character, but I liked her more than I liked this book. So many ugly scenes made me cringe and I still don’t know what they added to the story. The most confusing moments were when Mim does her face paint thing where she takes lipstick and draws what she thinks of as  Indian Warrior Chief paint on her face. This makes her feel empowered and nobody calls her out on how offensive it is. If you look close, she’s wearing it on the cover. This is the kind of character flaw I think needs to be earned by the author because its such a charged, ignorant gesture from an otherwise intelligent, compassionate character. Here it comes across like its there for shock value or to convince the reader this girl really is crazy. See what she does? Which is another aspect that annoyed me.

YA authors are writing females with a mental illness like they’re the next glossy vampire craze. Just stop. Most of them are written in first person, but they have an outsider’s under-researched limited POV, taking liberties to fill in the blanks with love interests because mental illness is so sexy and kindred spirits always materialize at just the right moment to keep them from falling too far and taking those meds is a happy ending. A few authors, like the most brilliant Laurie Halse Anderson, get it right. Others use mental illness as a device to punch a ticket to the popular land of offbeat quirkiness bound to escalate with the momentum of a girl off her meds. Here Mim’s mental health reads sometimes like a crutch to explain why she does what she does, other times it busies up an already busy book.

Mosquitoland has a lot of fans and I can see why people might like it, but I’m not one of them.

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