35. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

30 Aug

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I have a soft spot for Michelle Tea, because of her debut novel/memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, which I somehow read when it came out in 1998. Tea is around my age and also from the Boston area, and we hung out in a some of the same places. In the late ’90s and as a young person it was a new thing for me to see a memoir set in a milieu I was familiar with; I don’t remember the details much more than that, but I remember loving the book and finding it relevant to my experience.

Since then Tea has become a major alt-culture figure in the queer literary scene. The latest edition of Passionate Mistakes has an afterword by uber-cool lesbian poet Eileen Myles, for example. Tea has written many things in many genres, and Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is her attempt at a teen novel, though of the quirky, intellectual type that gets published in hardcover by McSweeney’s.

I found it sort of readable and sort of desperately boring. It’s about a 13-year-old girl who discovers she has magical powers. In fact, she’s the girl all the local legends have been about, and it’s her job to do something really big that will save everyone!  If there is a more hackneyed plot device at this point, I don’t know what it is. I would like to personally round up all these ordinary teens with magical powers, starting with Harry Potter and ending with Tea’s heroine Sophie Swankowski, and subject them to various George Saunders torture-worlds. That would be entertaining.

Tea’s personal spin on the premise is also kind of predictably Social Justice and annoying. Her heroine Sophie learns about indigenous peoples (the vocab has to be explained to her by another character, which at least is realistic) and their various histories of magical tradition. Sophie is Polish, so her main magic comes from that Old Country, but a Mexican-American character named Angel contributes her lore as well. There’s lots of special candles and reaching within to create emotional shields and making sure to respect everyone’s cultural traditions.

There were things I liked about the book. The decayed urban landscape of Chelsea, Massachusetts made a great setting. Some action took place in the town dump, which was interesting. There were talking pigeons who quoted poetry. Angel is a girl whom everyone thinks is a boy, and it seemed like Sophie might have a huge crush on her once she grows up a little. Sophie’s single mom worked at a free health clinic and was realistically angry, stressed and exhausted. Sophie was just getting old enough to feel sorry for her, which was also realistic and interesting.

Tea is a compelling writer, and there was so much that these people could have learned, gone through. I found casting spells and learning about hokey generations-old curses to be the least interesting direction to develop them in.

2 Responses to “35. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea”

  1. Grab the Lapels September 2, 2016 at 5:02 pm #

    I’ve never heard of McSweeney’s publishing YA lit. It sounds like Tea was trying to give something to teens that would help them learn to respect different cultures, but that’s hard to do. Teens are much smarter than we think, but also not knowledgeable in many ways. It’s a hard demographic to reach just right. For instance, yesterday I was teaching a section of Nickel and Dimed to college freshmen. It was the part about Ehrenreich feeling that doing a urine test for a job lack stacking boxes of Cheerios is an indignity. The students couldn’t comprehend why you WOULDN’T want to drug test people in such jobs, because of course they probably have criminal backgrounds anyway…*sigh* But later, in another class with freshmen, they very smartly discussed how Malcolm X, when he was a child at a school with almost all white children, was a mascot for white integration that didn’t actually do anything, but made white people feel/look better. He was held up as the perfect example of a black kid who didn’t bother white society, and my students realized that. How do you write a YA book that hits the gaps and smarts of young people? I couldn’t do it, but Tea shouldn’t have been so heavy handed. That reeks of “cool adult trying too hard.”

  2. Grab the Lapels September 2, 2016 at 5:03 pm #

    Also, I reviewed the lesbian book yesterday that you’ve been waiting for, lol. I also reviewed Fluke by Christopher Moore, though that review is linked to Goodreads and not shared in completion on my blog (ladies only). Only one more Green Gables book left and I’m done with #20BooksofSummer!

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