Review of We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire
by Joy McCullough; illus. by Maia Kobabe
High School    Dutton    400 pp.    g
2/21    978-0-525-55605-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-55607-7    $10.99

When the frat boy who raped her sister, Nor, is found guilty in court, Em feels vindicated and amazed, for it was her drive for justice that first energized her family to prosecute him. Then the judge stuns her family by sentencing the convicted rapist to serve no time at all. Em is shattered, and so is Nor, who suffers the unbearable fallout of misogynist bullying when the case is over. As Em tries to process the egregious injustice, she learns about Marguerite de Bressieux, a legendary fifteenth-century knight celebrated as the avenger of rape survivors. Writing a verse novel about Marguerite and her revenge becomes both therapy and obsession until Em quite literally falls on a sword and has to be rescued. McCullough evokes the fiery rage and hopelessness her protagonist feels about America’s justice system, and especially in realizing that “our world had already decided” that a boy like the one who raped her sister “could take what he wanted from a girl like Nor.” Both in the first-person prose account and in the verse novel (with characterful, medieval manuscript–like decorations), McCullough sustains a one-note pitch of outrage up until the final pages, when, through Em’s friend and family members, she offers some nuanced, constructive critique of Em’s “tunnel vision.”

From the March/April 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Deirdre Baker
Deirdre Baker
Deirdre F. Baker, a reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine and the Toronto Star, teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto. The author of Becca at Sea (Groundwood), she is currently at work on a sequel—written in the past tense.

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