Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Power of Belief

Teens confront the issue of sexual abuse in Ashley Herring Blake’s latest YA novel

Ever since they were little, Mara and her twin brother Owen have looked up at the constellation of Gemini in the night sky and felt special. They even make up stories for each other while lying on their backs on the roof of their house, star-gazing. The stories always begin, “Once upon a time, a brother and a sister lived with the stars. They were happy and had wild adventures exploring the sky.” But the latest story about Owen is not a happy one: he’s accused of raping his girlfriend, Hannah, at a drunken party to celebrate the beginning of their senior year. Owen says he’s innocent, but Mara isn’t so sure. She wants to believe her brother, but she can’t imagine why Hannah would lie.

Mara isn’t having an easy time herself. Normally she could turn to her best friend, Charlie, for help, but their relationship has been tense ever since Charlie became her “best-friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-ex-girlfriend.” Mara is open about her sexuality, despite the cost of honesty: “It was bad enough when I came out as bisexual last year,” she says, “but to date a girl? It’s nothing but threesome jokes and passive-aggressive slut shaming every time I venture into the hallway.”

It’s worse for Charlie, who identifies as genderqueer, or non-binary. “Charlie dealt with so much inside her head, hid so much from her parents, but she never hid herself from me,” Mara says. “She let me see just how hard life hit her, just how confusing it was sometimes for her. All of the assholes in our school who’d bump into her in the halls, wondering aloud and obnoxiously if she was a girl or a guy. Every time her mom wanted to take her dress shopping. Every time her dad pulled her into his arms and whispered how thankful he was for his beautiful daughter. She wore it all with a lifted chin and steely eyes, with a grace I envied.”

To help themselves and their friends make sense of an increasingly threatening world, the girls start an after-school group called Empower, which Mara describes as “a place to talk about the shit that girls and queer kids deal with every day.” She takes great pleasure in writing fearless articles for the group’s newsletter: “There was no topic I’d shy away from, and I quickly became known as Queen Bitch at school, which just fueled every flame I had in me. I devoted an entire article to why I found the term delightfully empowering, and the piece ended up being a pretty hilarious and scathing commentary, one of my favorites I’ve ever written.” But this strong and confident young woman, conversant in issues of gender identity, sexual oppression, and feminist theory, carries her own shameful secret—a traumatic event that she has been hiding since eighth grade.

In Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake addresses complex cultural issues in the context of the everyday drama of high school. She fully captures the emotional rollercoaster of teen life and considers the lonely, life-changing pain and shame of sexual abuse. Whether she is defying the school dress code or supporting Charlie in her first Nashville gig as a singer/songwriter, Mara is both believable and sympathetic. As she struggles to reconcile how to love her brother, support her friend, and protect herself from being overwhelmed by grief, her missteps only make her more sympathetic. And this is not a story without hope: Blake beautifully illustrates the healing that can happen when survivors find the courage to tell their stories and are met with the simple yet powerful gift of belief.

Tagged: ,