Review: Hearts Unbroken

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

title: Hearts Unbroken
pages: 304
format: eARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | BookDepository | Goodreads
rating: 4/5
genre: Contemporary
topics: Native American character, High School, Racism, Family


In her senior year of high school, Lou decides to join the school paper, not expecting anything beyond learning this new craft and getting something impressive to put on college applications. But then the school's theater director casts a black student and Lou's own younger brother in the production of Wizard of Oz, and this kicks off quite a bit of backlash in their small Oklahoma town, with cries of 'PC culture gone amok' and parent activist groups. Lou struggles to report on the goings on fairly, but also support her brother and navigate the racism that comes her way, as well. Add to that, she meets a cute boy on the paper and starts to develop feelings for him, but she's shy about jumping into a relationship after her last one rather dramatically imploded.

Writing for impression, not scenes

So, it took me a long time to get into this book because of the writing style, and I suspect that'll be the same for a lot of other readers. However, once I understood what the book was trying to do and adjusted my own reading habits, we clicked a lot more. I have a habit of reading in between tasks and letting the book tell me where to stop, with chapter breaks or somesuch, and that just didn't work in this book because the scenes are so short. Reading a handful at a time didn't work because they don't build on each other. My ADHD brain couldn't handle it!

But I noticed that I also couldn't stop thinking about the book after I put it down. When I decided to carve out some weekend time and just sit and read, when I let the whole of the book flow continuously, I was really happy with it.

I felt like the writing in this book is built for making an impression more than following a 'traditional' storytelling style. The rapid-fire nature of scenes, the repetition of certain points, the way things get cut off, is individually frustrating but altogether evoke some pretty powerful feelings and impressions. I got a sense of the ever-present underlying racism much better from having short instances brought up repeatedly than I ever could from one "well"-developed scene. I felt Lou's exhaustion from leaving these things unchallenged much more from the way scenes ended than I ever could from any narration she might have delivered. It was storytelling via structure, and I find it fascinating.

The Characters

There's a wealth of characters in this novel, most of them with small roles but all of whom are distinct and interact with Lou in unique ways, which contributes to a feeling of the world being well-rounded. I particularly really loved her parents, and family in general is a big factor in this book. Not just nuclear family - they visit extended family and mention said family members often. Lou's friends and fellow-paper-students are great, too, and her best friend delivers a great little speech to Lou at the end.

In fact, that little speech is one of my faves, because throughout the book Lou can feel a little bland. But she's not. The narrative just did such a thoroughly good job of putting me in Lou's mindset that it felt completely naturally and kind of invisible. And then when her flaws get called out near the end, I had a real sense of 'oh shit, I totally got sucked into that' which was very interesting.

The one time realism maaaaaybe isn't the best

The plot on this one is...a smidge underwhelming? There's just not a lot going on, to the point that writing a summary for it was hard because, well, to come up with something longer than a sentence you basically have to list everything that happens. Ish. Because of the repetition and the vignette nature of the structure, it takes very little plot to get an actual lot of pages. Every beat is repeated over and over, but with different throw-away characters. Add to that there's a lot of threads that seem like they're building up to something and then just...kind of stop just short of a climax and then fizzle out.

Which, to be fair, is thoroughly realistic, not every act of racism ends in something huge and dramatic. Everything in this book feels very real. It just...doesn't quite feel very story. That'll annoy different people to different degrees, but it did leave me feeling a bit 'wait, that's it?' after the end.

Will I read this author again? Yup.
Will I continue this series? Not part of a series.

More Reviews for Hearts Unbroken

American Indians in Children's Literature - Highly Recommend: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Muse of Nyxmares - Review: Hearts Unbroken
YA Book Central - Hearts Unbroken

Note: I received this copy from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review. The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions. 

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