Heather Brewer appeared at Magic Tree Book Story on September 21, 2011 to talk about her newest book, First Kill, which is the first installment of a series called the Slayer Chronicles. “Auntie Heather” as she calls herself, has candy apple red hair around her face, and black hair with stripes of red glitter. She dresses in all black and was celebrating her 38th birthday.
When Brewer talked to her “minions” as she calls her fans, she impressed upon them the issues of being bullied and how it needs to be addressed and eliminated in school. She said she had been bullied herself throughout school from her youngest days to graduation from high school. Bullying often fuels fantasies of revenge in the victims so perhaps this is what Brewer is doing in her books but she doesn’t equip her readers with any other strategies to combat the problem besides killing your enemies. She doesn’t leave them with much hope either.
Then Brewer talked about the “Twilight” series. She doesn’t like it because the central female character, Bella, seems to think it is OK to be stalked by someone. Brewer thinks Bella is a classic Damsel-in-Distress and as a mother of an 11 year old girl, she feels this is a bad message to give to young girls.
I can’t argue with her. After all, date rape and date violence are a continuing problem with adolescents. What I take issue with is that in this book, violence is pervasive and accepted. The idea that a 13 year old boy is beaten with a whip, deprived of food and water, kicked, punched and otherwise maltreated in the name of making him ready for combat is abhorrent. It is a continuation of the mindless obsession our culture seems to have with violence. In Brewer’s world view, there is no way out except with blood.
Joss, the central character of this story, feels guilty for not having saved his younger sister from a vampire and so accepts all this abuse as justified due to his failure to act. The one character who tries to provide an alternate perspective turns out to be a traitor. So even when there are adults who provide alternate ways of addressing problems, they aren’t to be trusted. And, of course, Joss proves himself a slayer by killing several vampires, whom he thinks of as animals and beasts in order to suppress his empathetic feelings. But since when it is OK to kill animals mindlessly either? The whole premise is that Joss has to protect the world from vampires and thus learn to kill. In one scene, it is stated that he loses part of his soul with the kill, but the message that killing others also kills something in the killer is not emphasized.
I also was troubled by the fact that Joss’s parents seem completely indifferent to him and what he is going through. They are not portrayed as deficient in the opening scene of the book, but after the death of the sister, they act as if Joss doesn’t exist. I can understand that grieving parents might seem indifferent to a young teen ager, but they accept the uncle’s explanation that Joss’s injuries--multiple fractures, welts from whipping, concussions and contusions--are the result of Joss instigating fights with other kids and agree that he should be disciplined. I have yet to meet a parent who would accept a lame excuse like that. These people didn’t even come to see their son to make sure he was all right. One problem I often have with young adult literature is that parents and other authority figures are dismissed as clueless and unnecessary, when, in fact, we need older and younger people for balance in this life. I understand that Joss is the protagonist, but it would be nice if at least some of the adults in the story had empathy and concern for him.
I don’t remember the books I read in middle and high school as being so dark and violent. Huckleberry Finn was beaten by his father, but he has folk wisdom and decency. He is able to see through the hypocrisy of authority figures but not every adult in the book is violent or a fool. I recently read something from Gandhi: “Passive resistance is an all-sided sword; it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom it is used. Without drawing a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results.” Just once I’d like to see a protagonist who chooses not to kill, maim or otherwise annihilate his or her opponent but instead chooses some kind of pro-social behavior to rise above the violence.
The film, The Interrupters, is a powerful examination of the cost of violence to the person doing the violence as well as to the victims. We need to have more discussions like this with all young people, whether they live in gritty urban neighborhoods or are vampire slayers in fiction. We need to take killing as something very, very serious. And we need to talk about alternatives because young people are dying every day from our casual attitude toward death.
Having said all that, the writing was better than I expected and I liked the character of Joss very much. I think Brewer does a fine job of creating an alternate world of vampires and their hunters. I myself do not understand the current obsession with zombies, vampires and other creatures of horror, but I was able to enjoy the story. There is a strong plot and some surprising twists in the tale.
Most of the “minions” in the audience were in their early teens and most were girls, although this book had only one real female character and she was clueless about what was going on until the end of the book. That surprised me since Brewer clearly sees her stories as empowering for girls. Perhaps her other series has more female characters.
Brewer was asked about her writing. She said that she decided to write about what she knew—being unpopular, bullied, a teenager and vampires. “Nothing is perfect the first time.” She encouraged her fans to rewrite and edit. “It’s editing that makes the book,” she said. Next time, I hope she edits out some of the violence.