Publisher Website - Candlewick Press
Publisher Social Media - Twitter
Pages - 308 pages
My Rating - 4.5/5
**received from publisher for an honest review**
While violence runs rampant throughout New York, a teenage girl faces danger within her own home.Historical novels, at least for me, work the best when there is something that connects with the reader in the present. It could be the journey the character takes, or even being shown how little things have changed. Burn Baby Burn effortlessly transports us to New York City in the late 1970's where fear was the defining emotion. It also, however, mirrors current day situations in it's own way and offers a universal message of overcoming your fears.
Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late?
Current situations are reflected in many ways in this novel. New York City was in a constant state of fear thanks to the Son of Sam shootings. This isn't too different from today with the sheer volume of mass shootings and other terror threats. It's a palpable shift in the way our world is viewed, even as we continue to live in it. There is still political strife today, and equality is still something we need to work towards. In Burn Baby Burn the police are accused of treating people differently based on race and socio-economic status. There are even accusations of them shooting suspects because of their race. This mirrors today in a really jarring way. It holds a stark mirror to the fact that we really haven't come that far.
The Son of Sam hysteria that plagued New York City is kept in the background. Nora is haunted by the much closer violence that exists within her own home. The use of the Son of Sam case in the background created a heightened sense of fear. Just going to the movies at night became a sort of version of Russian Roulette for a lot of people. The use of this case, and it's impact on New York City, offers a perfect backdrop for this coming of age story and the message it's try to send. It felt right that it was kept in the background. There is no near miss where the protagonist walks down a different street or anything like that. This is not a story about the Son of Sam. It's rather a story of growing up in that particular environment, and the need to overcome a fear to move forward.
Nora's household is one of egg shells. Trying to keep her bullying brother from flying into a rage is exhausting and more harrowing for Nora than anything happening outside her home. The portrayal of an abusive household is pitch perfect, and fraught with real emotion. Hector is also brilliantly captured with a balance between the boy he used to be, and the man he is becoming painted with striking reality. The reality of living this existence and the need to keep it a secret from those around you is something that felt honest and real.
When David Berkowitz is caught Nora comments that he is nothing like she expected him to be. Bringing him out of the shadows and into the light made his hold over them weaken. He became human in the bright reality of day. This novel shows that this analogy is true of secrets as well. They seem all encompassing in the dark places where you keep them to yourself, but when you share them with people you trust and drag them out into the light they don't seem as terrifying or overwhelming. This is something Nora struggles with and is captured perfectly by Meg Medina.
Secrets can harden people. Fear can, too. This novel is all about embracing those things and coming out the other side stronger for it. Allowing it to eat away at us is shown to be harmful, while reaching out can be therapeutic in so many ways. This is the heart of the story. Nora is its heart in so many ways. Her journey is recognizable and poignant. She's on the cusp of adulthood and dealing with this that have the power to harden and restrict her. Her future depends on her trusting others and doing things that scare her. Everyone can relate to that and it's done in a really powerful way.
Fans of historical novels will delight in this well researched, well written look at a harrowing time in New York City history. Those who don't appreciate historical reads as much will get lost in the characters and the current day parallels. While it's hook may be it's time period setting, it's the characters that stay with you once you've turned that final page.