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Races in Reverse: A Revisit

2013 March 4
by Jessica Pryde
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Almost six months ago, I wrote a post about race in YA literature. While I covered a few different points, one was the (at the time recent) release of the novel Revealing Eden, which many compared to the previously published Naughts & Crosses. I hadn’t read either in their entirety, though I did read a preview of each book before writing the post.

Last month, I discovered a new series (The Cambion Chronicles) that also dealt with race, and it reminded me about the aforementioned books. I decided to read each to see if the comparisons were fair and to better understand how each dealt with issues of race in worlds where the dark-skinned people are the majority.

Cover of Revealing EdenI decided to read Revealing Eden first. The first order of business here was to completely suspend reality for a moment. Knowing what the subject matter was, I knew to read it with an entirely separate universe in my mind. Instead of considering Pearls and Coals human, from this Earth, with true Black and White race relations involved, I consider the novel a fantasy — with a vast majority of a species with darker skin being the oppressive rulers of this world.

Once I placed myself into this mindset, Eden’s position was much easier to swallow. She, a member of an oppressed race, must cover her skin and hair to look more like her oppressors in order to survive in their world, which has been forced underground as a result of devastating surface damage to their planet (which is Earth, according to Eden, but as mentioned before, I’m reading it as off-world fantasy). Never is it clearly mentioned what the surface damage is, or what has caused it — and there’s a really big plot point that involves this question and really confuses me.

What kept this novel going for me? Curiosity. I had no idea where it was going structurally, so I kept reading. Traces of Mary Shelley, Charles Perrault, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne Du Maurier, Frank Herbert, and every Emily Dickinson poem I’ve ever hated lie in this novel. The bouncing around of plot and frequent poetry asides might occasionally inspire me to set a book aside, but I was actually compelled to finish it. I might even continue with the series, just to see where Foyt is going with it.

But I do have some questions. Why is so much of the oppression done? Why must Pearls wear blackface so as not to offend the Coals? Why is it so dramatic when Eden calls someone a “damn Coal” as an offensive name when Coal is used repeatedly just in reference to people of the race? Why are images of Pearls in natural coloring illegal?

And then there’s my biggest problem with this novel: the antagonism in this story baffles me. Let’s say Voldemort won and all muggleborns had to wear some sort of magical cloaking to cover their muggleness. That’s what this feels like. In what futuristic human Earth would an instance of a large racial group dying off lead to such drastic racial role reversal? (Ah, there I go, again, coming out of the mindset I was supposed to stay in…)

And then I read Naughts & Crosses.

Cover of Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman.In this world, a group made slaves because of their color was only allowed their freedom fifty years before, but they are still stuck in a world where education past fourteen is a dream, double standards abound, people of one race aren’t allowed on juries, and public hangings aren’t a thing of the past. The world is thoughtfully created, from Crossmas all the way down to the color of band-aids. The history books praise the works of Charles Drew and Matthew Henson, but who the heck is Robert Peary?

Some people say the concept of Naughts & Crosses is contrived. Well, sure. Let’s create a universe almost exactly like our own, not only with one major difference, but a whole history that allows for that difference. And within that major difference, we can see the potential for a similar outcome, with even slower progress than in our own world.

There are still real world, contemporary issues in this Romeo and Juliet story. These include underage drinking, family problems, suicide attempts, and exclusion to the nth degree, but the social situation of the society intensifies those issues instead of inspiring any mumbles of, “really? Another one?” Callum and Sephy, the leads in the story, are real people with real problems. They each find their own ways to cope with the setbacks of teenage life on top of the racial tensions driving their society to insanity.

I lay wide awake in bed after finishing this novel — after midnight, possibly for hours. Broken and broken-hearted, the only thing that let me finally sleep was the knowledge that there were three more books and two novellas in this universe. This was not truly the end.

My students have a phrase they use when I or one of my teachers is getting on their nerves. “Ms. Pryde,” they’ll say, “you’re doing too much.”

That’s one thing that makes Naughts & Crosses a more successful race reversal story. Victoria Foyt is just doing too much, and there’s not enough of anything. Post apocalyptic dystopia, lost civilizations, genetic experiments? I don’t know which direction to look first. Blackman, on the other hand, has provided us with an alternate modern reality in which Crosses are the ruling class and naughts are their colorless subordinates. We enter the world at the beginning of desegregation efforts, while a naught group reminiscent of the Black Panthers or the IRA is pushing for more change through violent, horrendous methods.

In Naughts & Crosses, neither group is shown in a perfect (or feeble) light. Once we begin reading Revealing Eden, we immediately see that Coals are almost all horrible, and even the ones who are acceptable become so only because they are now different — changed, when before they were arrogant bastards. The three living Pearls that we meet are one-dimensional and have very little interest in change for the better.

All in all, I’m not sure what the outcome of comparing these two novels should be. They both have similar basic themes, but these themes have different roles in the plots. In Revealing Eden, it’s simply the way things are. While the name of the series is apparently Save the Pearls, it doesn’t appear as though the Pearls have any desire to be saved, let alone the ambition for change. Eden herself just wants to marry up and not go into The Heat. In Naughts & Crosses, the world is changing, and we as readers are the ones who have to hold on tight as both the microcosmic world of Callum and Sephy as well as the universe in which they live change in drastic ways — even as things continue to remain the same.

Maybe it just comes down to something a Cross prison guard says near the end of Naughts & Crosses:

“People are people. We’ll always find a way to mess up, doesn’t matter who’s in charge.”

— Jess Pryde, about to start My Soul to Save by Rachel Vincent

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3 Responses
  1. Deborah permalink
    March 4, 2013

    I was a big fan of Naughts and Crosses and had high hopes when it was released here in the US. However, there was so little marketing of the book that it never took off. I guess in many ways, it was ahead of its time, coming before many of the bigger dystopian/alternate history novels. I only read one of the sequels. Are the rest available in the US?

    • Jessica Pryde permalink
      March 4, 2013

      Hi Deborah!

      Sadly, the sequels that are available are really hard to find. N&C itself is available in the States in both print and eformat, but only a couple of the shorts she wrote are available in eform, and the full-length sequels are mostly available as imports. There isn’t a library system in my area that has even the first one, let alone the other three. More than sad, really.

  2. March 4, 2013

    Howdy! We’ve bought several copies of N&C (retitled “Black and White” in the U.S.) because the high school uses it in a unit on Romeo and Juliet (woot!) I was also able to purchase “Knife Edge.” Sadly not the others, because every teen I know who’s read these books LOVES them. Man, I really don’t get why we can’t get U.K. books more readily… get with it, book distributors!

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