By: Rivers Solomon
Vern―seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised―flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.
But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.
To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future―outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.
While this book did not resonate with me, I can appreciate it for the messages it works to spread. The narrative would have probably been more impactful to marginalized groups such as the LGBT community, non-binary people, and people of color who have faced the hardships described in Sorrowland first-hand. I respect Solomon’s choice to include Native American culture and explain the existance and history of the Winkte people of the Lakota tribe. Research into over 500 Native American cultures has found that more than 160 of those groups have at least one unique word for an individual that doesn’t fit into the traditional male or female binary. The Winkte is one such group where individuals born with male genitals do not express their masculinity in traditional ways and prefer roles and appearances closer to that of tribe women. Winkte individuals were revered as spiritual leaders and craftspeople who serve roles for the tribe that other members do not. In today’s society we would call those individuals transgender. The troubling part is that the Lakota did not think anything strange about members who exhibited these traits until Europeans introduced Christianity to the tribe. Unfortunately, today much of Native American culture has been completely destroyed or re-written to Christian standards and Lakota members that identify as Winkte are not always accepted by their people and are sometimes beaten or murdered for their gender expression.
So this is a reminder to anyone who believes that Millennials and Gen Z are tyring to push the “gay agenda” that transgender and non-binary people have existed throughout history long before the creation of the United States. And therefore long before there were groups that called themselves conservatives and liberals. Before reading Sorrowland, I knew some Native American groups had more than two genders but I didn’t know about the Winkte people specifically and appreciate the care that was taken by Rivers Solomon to research the group and show their gender expression as Lakota history rather than in a derogatory way. So much can be achieved when people are accepted for who they and not forcably changed by organzied religion. We’ve seen through history time and again that hate only breeds hate.
Vern herself is an albino black woman which was unique as I’ve never seen a protagonist with her background before. She talks about how if she wore a wig, she could basically pass as white and that her black community looked at her a little differently becuase she didn’t really fit in with them. Her best friend growing up even used the slur “wonder bread” to single Vern out for not “being black enough.”
The commentary is brutal and sometimes difficult to swallow. Readers never want to feel like they are or ever were part of a systemic issue that is still negatively impacting other people today. We want to believe that the government that says it’s protecting us doesn’t create unethical and cruel experiments like Tuskegee, but they do. We must accept that injustice happens and fight to overturn it where we can otherwise innocent people suffer for no other reason than because someone in power said they should.
These themes of empowerment, acceptance, and justice are the positive aspects of Sorrowland. Without them, this story would have been 1-2 stars at best.
Vern is not a particularly likable character and she behaves that way on purpose. She’s trying to protect herself and her children, not find love and community with other people. She’s a surviver and a hell of a lot tougher than me. I’ll give her that. A third of the way through, I found the details of Vern’s experience getting herself and her children from one part of the US to another to be positively grueling and boring to read. I wanted to put it down for a while and did to read Mort instead. I pretty much never do that. I don’t pick up a book, start reading it, put it down to read something else, and then come back. I’m more of a pick it up and stick with it or put it down for good kind of reader. So that should tell you that there was enough potential for the story to make a comeback but it was never going to get 5 or even 4 stars from me regardless of what the message is.
Many of Vern’s thoughts were repetitive as if Solomon didn’t think we understood the message or were paying attention. Vern herself even says that during the 4 years the story takes place that she hasn’t changed at all except physically. Imagine spending 4 years of your life raising 2 children by yourself mostly in the woods and living in constant fear only for you to be the exact same person at the end as when you began. I didn’t appreciate that and also don’t find that to be very realistic. Especially when you consider that Vern was only 15 when the story began and 19 when it ended.
The conclusion to the story wasn’t that interesting either, and I saw much of the ending coming from a mile away. Not because I’m particularly good at predictions but because everything was laid out for us by the third act. Despite all the facts we learn throughout the book, the details presented at the end were still treated like a revelation. Admittedly, some were but not most.
The part that really frustrated me was that Vern basically became a messiah by the end of the story. I don’t care what their background is, what the character has been through, or what special powers they are bestowed, if they end up basically representing a demi-god by the end, I’m out. It’s not unique or interesting and it doesn’t make for a tense resolution.
One of my favorite quotes:
“Better not to belong at all than belong in a cage.”
Overall rating: 3