Since Themis Academy faculty and staff turn a blind eye to much of what goes on between the students on the prestigious campus, the students have taken justice into their own hands. They have the Mockingbirds, a peer-run secret-society who hears and tries cases for students. When junior Alex is date-raped, she decides to enlist the help of the Mockingbirds. Even though it means throwing her into the spotlight and reliving the trauma of an event that she can only remember bits and pieces of, Alex knows that it’s the only way she can stand up for the girls who have remained silent, and it’s the only way to make Themis safer for girls in the future.
Whitney’s debut novel is in many ways an homage to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, drawing heavily from themes of that book, naming the secret society after the work and culminating in a trial, just like in Lee’s novel. In this one, though, Whitney focuses on the aftermath of a traumatic event in Alex’s life. In many ways, this novel’s focus is on a girl who loses her voice and finds a way to reclaim it through justice. It’s a well-structured, well-plotted look at a topic that’s hard to read about but important to understand. The fact that Whitney is able to take a story that is largely issue-based and craft a story full of strong characters and memorable dialogue is particularly noteworthy.
Much is made of the concept of what rape is in this book. Alex’s friends are careful to point out to her that not saying no doesn’t mean she said yes–only saying yes is giving consent. While this point seems to be driven home maybe too many times, it’s also not: Carter, the boy accused of raping her, doesn’t seem to get that Alex couldn’t give consent because she was too drunk. He refuses to see it, and maintains that she gave consent simply because she didn’t refuse him (she was passed out). This is, unfortunately, a common perception in our culture, and makes Whitney’s book all the more important. The students at Themis add an addendum to their student code of conduct that deals specifically with rape, and this spelling out of the act helps drive the point home as well.
Also noteworthy is the way that Whitney uses Alex’s blooming, tender romance with Martin to underscore the differences between a consensual relationship and date rape. The scenes with Martin were quiet, lovely moments where the chemistry between the characters felt real and natural. These moments provided a little bit of lightness to help dilute the more serious tone the book brings with it.
My major problem with the book have to do with a detail about the rape itself. Never does Alex consider getting tested for anything after being raped. While I understand her reluctance for a rape kit, I don’t understand the fact that being seen by a doctor was never even mentioned after the fact. Perhaps the reader is supposed to assume that she felt she was protected by the condoms Carter used, but this was unsatisfying for me.
The only other aspect of the book that I took issue with was the severe deficit of competent adults in the world of Themis. While I understand that the story is built on the concept that most of the adults in the world of Themis are hesitant to get involved in student affairs, I still struggle with the basic concept. With the exception of Alex’s music teacher, very little page time is given to any adult who doesn’t have their own interests at heart. As a teacher who is fairly involved in their students well-being, this tidbit tripped me up a bit.
Even so, this is a book that YA fans should be reading. This is a book that could be read in schools, and it’s an excellent way to connect to classic literature as well as facilitate discussions about important, hot-topic issues.
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, November 2010. Library copy.