Mosquitoland by David Arnold Book Review

Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Publisher: Viking Children's
Release Date: March 3, 2015

Mim Malone has witnessed the sudden collapse of her family, being dragged from her home in Ohio to the wastelands of Mississippi to live with her dad and new stepmom. When Mim catches wind that her mother be sick, she decides to take a bus back to Cleveland to me with her. Things don't work out so well on the old Greyhound line though. First there is the bus accident followed by the stalker poncho man who corners her in the bathroom and almost rapes her. She keeps it a secret though, not wanting her trip to end. Eventually she abandons the bus, deciding to hitchhike her way to Ohio. But not even that goes right because she meets Walt, a boy with down syndrome who clearly needs someone to take care of him too. Mim has her own demons too, struggling with what the definition of sanity is and searching for a way to love those who have hurt her.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. I ignored the kerfuffle concerning the trailer and cultural misappropriation. There was a great deal of excitement for the character with down syndrome, something not often seen in children's literature or literature in general. Add to that the promise of a good journey and mental health issues and I was sold. Sadly, I found the book to be rather confusing and quite a slog to get through.

First, I must be clear that the writing itself isn't bad. Mim has that typical YA teen voice that is snarky and standoffish, speaking in a way that most teenagers never would although they wish they did. This is, of course, a byproduct of adult writers writing books for teens, and so I usually give this a pass seeing as it is something that cannot be helped. The various characters introduced throughout the book are interesting and quirky, although a bit flat as far as characterization is concerned. Mim is the star and you won't forget it.

There were three major things that stuck out in the book that I think are important to talk about. The first being the aforementioned cultural misappropriation of Native American peoples. Mim (as you can see in the below trailer) uses lipstick as war paint, something that she knows is strange but thinks is permissible since she is 1/64th Cherokee or some such nonsense. What I never understood was why she feels like she is at war. Sure, things are not good at home. She has a father who keeps taking her to psychologists until one agrees that she is crazy and puts her on medication. That would feel terrible, but Mim holds onto this war paint and it's meaning very hard and after reading it, I have to admit, it did very much feel like cultural misappropriation. Mim's small connection to native peoples is so tenuous that it felt almost like an afterthought, although I suspect it was not.

The second issue is that of rape. Poncho man corners Mim in a bathroom and is creepy to the extreme and then begins to threaten her with rape. Even though this clearly is a problem and this man needs to be reported, Mim's mission to get to Ohio is far greater than her own personal safety or that of others. And it comes to a head when another girl is violated. Mim feels bad, but she still doesn't go to the police when she finds out, to tell what happened to her. Poncho man was arrested so all is right with the world, right? Right?

The handling of a Down syndrome and homelessness was downright disturbing. If you or I saw a random young teen with a clear disability, we would do something about it. Call the authorities and make sure they were taken care of. Mim? She semi-adopts him, lives on the streets with him for a bit, and when he gets sick, takes him to a veterinarian since the nearest clinic is closed. Instead of, you know, calling 911, taking him to the hospital, or finding another open clinic. In the end, he is left with her semi-boyfriend who she just met who promises to take care of him. Did I mention the part where he is a teenager? This kid needs a home, protection, and someone official who can track down his family. Never mind that he may have health issues that need to be addressed. Someone with a lot more experience than a college drop-out would.

Then there is the mental health stuff. Mim is on medication because she suffers from hallucinations. Maybe. From Mim's unreliable narrator perspective, she doesn't even see herself as sick. She portrays her father as a man who is so fearful that she will become crazy like her Aunt, that he takes her from one therapist to another until someone diagnoses her and puts her on medication. I have read through a number of reviews and the more positive ones seem to believe that Mim really has a mental illness. I was never sure. I mean, this is supposed to be a major plot point in the story, and was constantly confused as to whether she did have a mental illness or her father was just a paranoid weirdo who was willing to medicate his daughter to make himself feel better. Oh and let's not forget the truly mentally ill boy that Mim meets with Walter who is portrayed as a dangerous evil psychopath out to hurt people. And what about Mim's mom, who is clearly struggling with....something, although we will never actually know what. Is it mental illness too or just the result of really nasty divorce.

Were there good moments? Sure. The most compelling part of the story is the family dynamics that exist between Mim and all her parents, but I'm afraid that wasn't enough for me. Mim is such an unreliable narrator, that even though the truth does eventually come out, nothing really changed. I still think her dad is a horrible person, I can only feel so bad for her step-mom, and her mother really really does need help. Mim wasn't wrong about any of it, she just met a few new people on her journey to realization.