Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an open and honest review.
It is hot out. I feel like I am literally burning up. I feel sweat running down my face, my shirt is soaked trough to the skin. I am on edge. I know something bad is about to happen. I do not know when or how but it will happen. I am sure of it. When you invite the Devil into your house, nothing good will come.
In her debut novel The Summer That Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel transported me to the small town of Breathed, Ohio in 1984 where Fielding Bliss tells the story of how he met Sal and the summer they spent together. The story is magnificently blended, told through the recollection of an elderly Fielding Bliss. The interweaving of Fielding’s current life with the progression of the summer of ’84 provides deep insight into the horror and trauma Fielding experienced in Breathed. McDaniel’s writing style and ability to story-tell had me engaged throughout the whole novel. I admit in the beginning, I thought the novel was a little slow; however, the tension picks up as soon as Sal’s presence is solidified in the Bliss household and does not let off until the final climax. Character development in terms of their social identities was lacking for me. I think the characters were well constructed and added a lot to the entire story, but I didn’t feel like I got to know them on a deeper level. I go more into this later but overall, I very much enjoyed reading this novel.
To give a bit of context, Fielding’s father, Autopsy Bliss, writes an open letter in a local newspaper inviting the devil to Breathed, Ohio. Sal appears one day out of nowhere and happens to meet Fielding, claiming he is the devil. Visually, he is a thirteen year old black boy in dirty overalls. Fielding takes Sal back to meet his father and ends up staying with the Bliss family. I do not want to spoil the story so I will not go into any details of the plot but I want to take some time to talk about the themes of spirituality, sexuality, and race that appear frequently in the novel.
At first, I was very irked at the fact Sal was a black boy. I read and see so many books, movies, and shows, painting black people as antagonists in stories, I had an initial seizing up in my muscles and stomach. After finishing the book, I still do not feel right about the racial climate of the novel — and not in a “oh of course to go along with our oppressive society, the Devil was black in this novel” way. What I think the author does well with the racial tension is illustrating and mirroring the racial climate of today. Regardless of if Sal was truly the devil or not (this fact remains uncertain), the progression of the story shows ever present White Supremacy and it’s power to paint a black child as a monster, as evil, as the devil. This was hard to read amidst the many recent national reports of violence against black and brown bodies in the United States. And I am torn here at the representation and I am still in grief at the truth this novel shines on a light.
As a generalization, I think many non-black authors are challenged when writing black characters, often making race the barrier, flaw, or reason why they suffer. Instead of using race as something a character celebrates and gains strength from. I see that here too in the character development of Sal, lacking racial identity development and what that might mean to a young boy in a predominantly White town, discovering where he can draw strength from and celebrate his identity. Sal’s character development focuses mostly on him as a child and his spiritual identity. Sal is a complex character and I was left wanting more from him in terms of racial identity.
Breathed is a small, relatively conservative town and there were a couple chapters discussing the intersections of religion/spirituality and sexuality. Many of the characters, including Fielding, share internalized homophobic views most of which are rooted in toxic masculinity and religious socialization. The dialogue where Fielding asks Sal whether having a queer identity is a sin sticks out to me the most. Again, I was on edge at this partly because I honestly had no idea where the dialogue was going. Sal’s succinct answer touches on the socialization of what we are taught to believe (mostly via religion in this context) and what really is. I found this powerful because privilege, oppression, and the ideas that perpetuate those systems are taught and learned from a young age. In a critical moment where the children of this novel were struggling with their own identities, the author was able to challenge (effectively in my opinion) socialization about sexual orientation in a traditional religious context.
The queer character in this novel struggled with his identity and ultimately suffers because of it but I thought he had more identity development within his overall character development. In addition, the author was able to show spaces where he was able to celebrate who he was. As I mentioned before about race, the same goes for any marginalized characters. Most of the time they are written to suffer because of their identity. There were moments in the novel where I saw this character thrive in his identity and I found myself smiling and full of joy when reading those passages. In a book that was very heavy to read, I saw glimpses of hope and I yearned for more celebration from that character’s experience. In the end, I found myself in grief for this character as well as many others.
I would recommend this read with a couple disclaimers: If you are looking for a supernatural horror novel about the devil incarnate, this is not the book for you. It is not easy. It left me wanting to dialogue more about our social inequities. It is heavy. It is unexpected. It digs into conversations many people are frustrated about, even outright angry about. It poses more questions than it answers. It is just complicated. And I think it is worth reading.
Final rating: 4.2/5
Look for The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel releasing July 26, 2016.