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  • Writer's pictureM. Meyers

Review: Alicia Caldwell Henderson's "young, dumb, and naive"

If there is any testament to this novel that I can give, it is this:

I sat on the floor reading at some hour of night and I felt a strong tug at the corner of my book. In a moment, the thing had happened and was done, leaving no time for action at all. I looked at my book and discovered the corner of the cover torn off. Then, my eyes followed the first natural path they found and landed on the culprit. My rabbit sat close to my leg swinging her cheeks in a chewing motion and lapping at her lips.

Young, dumb, and naïve is many things. It is a coming of age tale, a story about the divide between the realities of life and the keeping of faith, and an unapologetic view of the havoc that life in financial crisis brings. One thing that I did not expect this book to be was a late-night rabbit snack.

This young adult fiction novel by Alicia Caldwell Henderson revolves around a fourteen-year-old girl named Azerica who is just about to embark on her first year at high school. Having been at cheerleading camp the summer before her freshmen year, Azerica has expanded her friend group (for better or for worse). She realizes that high school is the perfect place for new beginnings and devotes herself to making that new beginning happen, whatever the cost. It just so happens that the cost becomes her childhood-friend Devin, and her connection with God. This power struggle between loyalties molds the novel into an extended allegory for faith and the giving power of God.

Considering that this is a debut novel, Henderson does many things right. Her strengths as a writer lay in the balance of narrative pacing, and character motivation. At no point in this novel did I feel that the pace was slowing down or becoming boring. It held my interest at a steady flow, then snared it with a relentless hold near the end.

When discussing the crafting of the characters, it is important to note that Henderson wisely chose to write her novel in alternating points of view—holding her own story accountable for its chaos. Within every section, it is clear Henderson has a strong hold of her character’s motives, convictions, and history. The loyalty Henderson keeps for the most raw, honest representation of each of her characters called to mind my reading of Toni Morrison’s Home. My favorite character sections strangely wound up being those featuring Sheryl, Azerica’s grandmother, and Candace, Azerica’s mother.

With all its obvious successes, I do have commentary toward critique of this novel. My first observation was that the manuscript could have possibly undergone two more drafts: one to catch formatting and grammatical mistakes, and another to polish narrative style. While it is a well-placed craft decision to alternate perspectives, I had trouble identifying if each section was meant to be third person limited or omniscient. This was because no matter what character’s point of view the reader was in, they were still told the thoughts of the other characters involved in the scene. This killed any shroud of mystery around the characters and limited the impact of dramatic reveal. A related observation was that there seemed to be a large amount of telling verses showing in the narrative style which may have accounted for the inclusion of all character thoughts and feelings in any given scene.

-Beyond this line contains spoilers. If you wish not to be spoiled, read no further-

These drawbacks aside, I still found this to be an enjoyable novel. I do stand by this comment but also hold the right to say that the end of the novel (and consequentially an earlier minor scene) greatly upset me. It was my experience when reading this that the issue of sexual assault and rape was glossed over. On page 103 is a mere two lines that hold the heavy weight of describing a violent rape. It wasn’t the inclusion of this event, nor the description that was upsetting, but the fact that it sprung from the text without warning.

Later, the climax of the novel is when Azerica is given date-rape drugs at a high school party. Once again, this happening did not upset me. What was upsetting was that when adult characters found out (the doctor Craig Pearson and her mother Candance), they did not discuss the possibility that she could have been raped or that she may need to be examined due to that possibility. Candace seemed to be more upset that her daughter was drinking and drugged in the process than the possibility that her daughter could have been sexually assaulted.

This all being said; I give Henderson credit for striving to include the harsh reality of sexual predation on woman and taking on the task of teaching her readers the risk through narrative. Writing uncomfortable, vulnerable content such as this is incredibly hard for any writer. A common human response to uncomfortable material is to go into ‘narrator’ or ‘announcer’ mode where the speaker states in a matter-of-fact tone what did happen and what resulted but avoids describing the emotional toll of the event. Including this type of violence in her narrative was a mammoth task. It may be that some of this upset feeling as a reader may be alleviated by stating a brief trigger warning or list of content types and themes before/after the copyright page.

-No more spoilers here!-

Even after my critique, I stand by the value of this novel and its importance to young readers. I applaud Henderson for what she pushed herself to achieve with this book and I anticipate watching as she refines her craft (beginning with the sequel to young, dumb, and naïve teased at the back of the book). This debut novel has brought her earned attention and success and I hope that the growing support catalyzes her growth as a writer.

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