I’m going to admit that I had already read Dear Martin and Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue last year. Unfortunately, I’d done so while in the middle of a really awful bit of reader’s block, and after forcing myself through each book the first time I couldn’t muster up much excitement about revisiting these titles. Thankfully, it turned out to be an easier and more enjoyable task than expected. Of course this second reading brought about different challenges: what book do I choose now that I’m digging both of them, and how do you compare such different books?
In the Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Henry Montague (Monty to his friends) is embarking on his last grand hurrah before settling down to learn the ins and outs of running his father’s estate. Unfortunately, Monty’s father does not see this trip as a chance for his son to sow his wild oats (really he’s already done plenty of that), but a chance to bring him to heel. Prove yourself worthy, stay out of trouble, and the inheritance is yours Monty. Accompanied by his sister Felicity and best friend (unrequited love of his life) Percy, Monty sets off on a tour that may bore him to death. After taking a tiny lock box in true Henry Montague fashion, an impulsive gesture of petty revenge, the three find themselves running for their lives across Europe where Monty will discover how far he’ll go for love.
First, the things I absolutely loved about this book. Oh my goodness do I love a good uncertain romance with brushing fingers and fumbling kisses. I read a lot of historical romance, and this is my absolute bread and butter. Luckily MacKenzi Lee does a great job of establishing this early on, and I spent a lot of time dramatically sighing in my head about Henry and Percy’s inability to just get their crap together. Just to repeat myself, this is not a complaint. I love this kind of foolishness. The other thing I loved was Percy and Felicity calling Henry out on his white male privilege. Lee gives us a good foundation for why Henry is the way he is, but he’s never given a pass, and he is challenged to be a better human being. This journey was a long one though. At over 500 pages it was a bit of a slog at times for me.
On the other side of this bookish duel in Dear Martin is Justyce McAllister. After being forcibly handcuffed and assaulted by a police officer while Justyce attempts to help his white passing, on-again, off-again girlfriend Melo, Justyce finds himself on his own journey, a self-reflection and study of “What would Martin do?” Told in third person narrative and first person letters to Martin Luther King Jr. we see how Justyce interacts with two worlds where he doesn’t quite fit. At his mostly white, elite private school, Justyce is faced with peers who believe that equality in the U.S. is a given, and that race is only a card that makes its appearance when convenient. Thankfully Justyce’s very cute, very white, very Jewish debate partner, Sarah Jane is willing to throw down and confront the white privilege these classmates demonstrate. In his neighborhood Justyce is made fun of for his intellectual pursuits and what his peers assume is riding on the coattails of white people. Justyce finds himself questioning whether or not his mission to live like Martin is the right way to go when he finds himself at the center of a horrible tragedy.
I am impressed with the diversity of experiences and points of view that Nic Stone wrote into this tiny book. I think anyone that reads this book can find themselves in these pages, and that’s not always going to be a comfortable experience, but it is a valuable one.
MacKenzi Lee and Nic Stone have gifted us with two wonderful books. On the surface they seem very different from each other: a bisexual historical fiction adventure romance vs. a contemporary study of race and the value of black lives. Within the pages though you will find stories about characters finding their place in a world that seems to be fighting their very existence and trying to force them into a specific mold. Both books have a lot to say, and there are readers out there who will find importance in these stories.
Unfortunately, I do have to choose one of these books, and my winner for this round is Dear Martin. Nic Stone packed a punch in such a small book. At just over 200 pages, Stone was able to write a fantastic story that deals with the complexity of race in America and the value of black lives. This is a book I feel comfortable giving to any reader and non-reader. I also like to believe in the transformative power of books, and I think the characters and stories of Dear Martin can provide a perspective that will help readers to understand an experience that isn’t there own, to question their own values, and perhaps to go out and make things better. We see our teens standing up for change, taking control of the political and social narrative, and books like this are helping them pave that way.