Release: January 22, 2015
If you could trade your biggest burden for someone else’s, would you do it?I cannot help it; I have grown achingly, increasingly bored with basic YA storylines. You know the drill. A girl trapped in a dystopian society realizes she is different and overtakes the government with the help of a capital-R Resistance. Meanwhile, a girl in our world meets an enigmatic bad boy whose secrets threaten to tear her apart. I have read so much YA that these tropes fail to impress me, even when executed well.
Five teenagers sit around a bonfire in the middle of the New Mexico desert. They don’t know it yet, but they are about to make the biggest sacrifice of their lives.
Lo has a family history of MS, and is starting to come down with all the symptoms.
Thomas, a former child soldier from Liberia, is plagued by traumatic memories of his war-torn past.
Kaya would do anything to feel physical pain, but a rare condition called CIP keeps her numb.
Ellen can’t remember who she was before she started doing drugs.
Kit lost his girlfriend in a car accident and now he just can’t shake his newfound fear of death.
When they trade totems as a symbol of shedding and adopting one another’s sorrows, they think it’s only an exercise.
But in the morning, they wake to find their burdens gone…and replaced with someone else’s.
As the reality of the ritual unfolds, this unlikely group of five embarks on a week of beautiful, terrifying experiences that all culminate in one perfect truth: In the end, your soul is stronger than your burdens.
That is why I am so drawn to unique concepts in fiction—I am so much more inclined to enjoy a book that explores a completely new idea. And that is why, when I first heard about The Way We Bared Our Souls, I knew I had to read it.
To some extent, Willa Strayhorn's debut delivers on its creative premise. The author does a fantastic job of describing each burden, painting a vivid picture of the symptoms of MS, the trauma of being a child soldier, and more. Even better, after the switch, Strayhorn creatively applies each new issue to each character. None of the burdens affect their new owners in quite the same way as their old owners, and I loved watching the impact of a given issue vary from person to person.
But, much like the lives of its main characters, this book's plot is not perfect. It lacks one key element: plausibility. At the start of the story, the burden-swappers are perfectly non-magical individuals living normal lives in the Santa Fe suburbs. But once they realize their burdens have been shuffled, they accept the situation as if it magic is a day-to-day event. Of course, they panic a bit as they grapple with each other's issues, but they barely seem surprised that they have been involved in an act of successful sorcery. I would have liked to see more confusion, more incredulity—I could not believe that they could simply brush off their situation with an "oh, that's strange."
Additionally, Strayhorn completely glazes over one major plot point: other characters who might realize that Lo, Thomas, Kaya, Ellen, and Kit have changed dramatically. No one—not even the protagonists' parents—notice anything different after the burden switch, another element I did not find believable. To be fair, some of the characters have rather absent parents, and others have small social circles, but with five main characters, someone should have noticed something was off. The fact that the author did not include this conflict makes the story seem a bit lazy and underdeveloped.
All of this could have worked if Strayhorn had given the story an atmospheric magical realism feeling, hinting that the characters do live in a world blurred at the corners by magic. However, Strayhorn's writing style does not achieve any kind of mystical mood. Instead, it reads as if the author was trying too hard to meet a set of YA criteria. At times, the voice of the narrator, Lo, comes across as slightly forced as she describes the requisite high school social hierarchy that too many YA novels emphasize. Even worse, The Way We Bared Our Souls includes an awkward romance with no real chemistry, only to meet the unspoken romance requirement in YA. The writing style is safe, never straying from established conventions, but it needed to be as bold, unique, and magical as the plot it accompanies.
However, as negative as my review may sound, I did enjoy this book. I just cannot ignore the lack of plausibility and nuance. Of course, Strayhorn is a debut author with plenty of time to grow—and with her incredible story ideas, I have high hopes for her future novels. I will absolutely pick up her next book, and I cannot wait to watch her style blossom.