“I know, ain’t evils in no life nor cruelties in no red hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star.”
Sandra Newman’s novel The Country Of Ice Cream Star is going to cause some fights, cause some clamour among the finger-wagging ranks of the sensitive literati. People who care about books (and who care about seeming to care about books) are going to go nine kinds of bonkers over this thing because it presses just about every single big red button there is.
Is it a book about black people and their experiences written by a white lady? Yep. Is there rape and murder? There sure is. Slavery? White colonialism? Religious fundamentalism? Check, check and double-check. Is it an apocalypse story with a plague that has conveniently wiped out 80% of the population of the American Northeast (at least), leaving none behind but several generations of black children who all die before their 20th birthdays like some kind of freaked-up mashup of Logan’s Run and that old Star Trek episode, “Miri?” Hell yes, it is.
And it stars a teenaged girl on a quest to save the world, who would make the perfect YA heroine if not for the fact that she is ten times the heroine of those found in any of the tales whose bones this one steals — and, thus, ten times as complex and ten times as real. She would shame Tris Prior to her knees in a heartbeat. Would spank Harry Potter, steal his wand and send him on his way in tears.
So here is where I am going to say something totally unlike me. Something that actually pains me to say: Don’t fight about this one.
Fat luck been the story of this year. Snares ever struggling full, and every arrow find a turkey. Any a sleeper street we did maraud, that street did give food. We war like twenty guns, but no one injure. Sling our hammocks in the crowns of sycamores like secret birds, and rest there, chattering and smoking, noses to the stars. Children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear.
That, my friends, is Ice Cream Star, narrating the story of her life. Oh, did I not mention that the entire book is written in cant? In slang? In a debased (but unarguably beautified) version of English, developed among isolated knots of survivors over 80 years of want and struggle?
Did anyone else read Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman? pic.twitter.com/blKklxsw6J
— Carra Lucia Books (@BooksCarra) December 21, 2019
And when I say the entire book, I mean the entire book. Not a page, not a line, survives unaffected. The voice Newman has created is bold and lyrical and, better still, complete — belonging to her pulp universe alone.
“Then my tears come blinding, and he lead me by the arm. I stumble in the elevator, thinking of that moon rain. Salt that last forever, grief that live beyond all life.”
The Good Bits. Hang with Ice Cream as she and her people flee before armies, before invaders and death. War with her. Sit with her in rare peaceful moments (saying, of a quiet afternoon between calamities, “Be life joyeuse, their selfish noise. Every two that weep, be gladness to me that they weep for nothing”), and adventure with her as she sets out among strange companions to find a cure for dying. If you can’t find worth enough in the words themselves, then the tale will carry you. And when the tale lags, the words will buoy you up.
“Yo, in this lost fight, he say, like daring me to fail, like mockery, You love me, Sengle? And I feel, this ain’t no love, we be like ghosts in hell – like after death you lose your thoughts, but keep your body in a bliss of nightmares – and I say furiose, Ain’t going to lie, I do. He press me down beneath him, say my name, and say he love me also. Then every terrify hate be gold. Darkness better than no light, and I creep out to solitary night and think of killing him, or how he kill me in some madness. Feel it ending so, is like a war must end with burning death.”
The Bad Bits
I have started and put down this book at least 16 times. I WANTED to finish it. I really did. It wasn’t even the pigdin English that got in the way. It was the flow. Once you stop reading, you can’t get back into the place where you left off without backtracking a few pages to see what the hell is happening.
Things aren’t really making sense or seem pointless. You’ll be moving along with the story and then a character will do a slight flashback (like maybe a few weeks) to explain something that is still happening in the present.
I’m not quite sure what happened to several of the main characters. I didn’t care enough to go back and try to figure it out.
In the acknowledgements, Newman mentions that the first draft was 900 pages and a “chaotic mess.” I thought to myself, the end product, 600 pages long, didn’t even have an ending. It’s a cliffhanger with no noes about a sequel.
If you take the undeniably huge effort for inventing pidgin English out of the equation, you are left with a dime a dozen plot very common in YA dystopia.