Burning by Elana K. Arnold ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: June 11, 2013
Publisher: Delacorte (Random House Kids)
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: post-high school graduation, gyspies, desert, recession
Format read: Hardcover provided to me by author. (Thanks!!)
Summary: Ben and his family are a few days away from leaving Gypsum, a town built on a mine that is no longer needed and cost everyone their jobs. With a scholarship to college, Ben will be living away from his friends and family for the first time ever. At the same time, Lala and her family are in town for the Burning Man festival hoping to make some money giving readings to people in attendance. As part of a Gypsy family, Lala is a few months away from marrying the groom her parents have chosen for her but she’s starting to wonder about that future…
Ben is a fixer and kind of a worrier. I can so relate to both of these qualities. He and his family are being forced out of Gypsum, a town dependent on the success of their mine. Unfortunately, the recession and lack of home construction makes the gypsum useless (it’s used in drywall) and the town is forced to close up for good.
One by one, Ben watches his neighbors leave and more paced boxes pile up in his own house. His family will move to Reno, and so will his two best friends, but Ben has the golden ticket — a scholarship to run at USCD. Despite all the hard work he did to earn it, part of him feels guilty. His dad doesn’t have a job. (Is he too old to find meaningful work?) And what about his younger brother James? Ben has been dodging bullies for the kid for years, and he’s worried about James being “too different.”
All of these changes are really weighing on Ben. He’s struggling with leaving the only place he has ever known, a place he most likely won’t see again. Being without his family and friends for the first time ever, and just generally unsure of what the future holds.
On the flip side of this story is Lala. A young girl from a gypsy family who is in town for an annual festival, hoping to make some money telling people their fortunes. Ben and Lala’s upbringing couldn’t be anymore different. She has been told what to wear, what tasks she must complete, and also, who to marry. In fact, she is betrothed to her sister’s brother-in-law and will be marrying him as soon as she turns 18.
Despite all of these restrictions and expectations, Lala truly loves her life. She enjoys fortunes (she is great at reading people), she adores her siblings, and for a long time she couldn’t think of a better life than marrying and getting to spend more and more time hanging out with her sisters. (Even if it meant she wasn’t in love.) But slowly things are starting to bother her. She reads many books and wonders what else is out there, and it’s not until Ben walks into her fortune tent that her mind really starts going into overdrive.
It’s that whole “you can’t unthink something once you think it” kind of thing.
As you can see, there’s a lot of backstory for both characters and it did take quite some time for me to get swept into Burning. I’m so happy that I stuck with it because the writing is utterly beautiful and I could legitmately picture these settings in my head, gain understanding of the gypsy culture, and also hear the voices of Ben and Lala so clearly. (It helped that Lala speaks so formally; she sounded much older than she really was.)
And the two of them together? Ben and Lala are taken by each other very soon after their first meeting, and even though she tries to resist and Ben kinda/sorta gives up, when they finally get their day together… wow. Their chemistry is so strong, and I loved as they swapped their different life stories with each other. Even though there was this ticking time bomb in the background, I felt like this moment, any moments they shared together, would prove to be so effective and memorable no matter the endgame.
In the period of just a few days, Arnold changes the lives of both of her characters. And not in ways I totally expected either. Burning is a unique story of moving forward, embracing independence, making tough decisions, and discovery. Some of it is beautiful, and some of it is messy and Arnold doesn’t feel she needs to tie everything up in a pretty package. I really appreciated that even if that meant my heart breaking at times. Despite the enchanting feel of the story, Burning is rooted in some tough realism for all of the characters and I was ridiculously impressed by their strength, their honesty, and their blunders.