Book Review: Ask the Passengers

Book Review: Ask the Passengers by  A. S. King

Astrid Jones is a smart, funny girl who you can easily imagine having an amazing life in New York, hanging out in the Village perhaps, exploring the city with quirky and artsy friends. Unfortunately for Astrid, she does not live in the city. Born a New Yorker, Astrid and her family moved to Unity Valley, Pennsylvania — quintessential small-town USA — when she was 10 years old, and has been stuck in a rut ever since.

In Unity Valley, and in Astrid’s own family, the only way to fit in is to fit — no rough edges, nothing to make you stand out, no unusual traits. And if you’re the member of a minority group? Well, may the gods of uniformity help you then. The small-minded gossip of the town regularly calls out the ethnic minorities, the eccentrics, and the generally suspect, and there is no mercy when it comes to the rumor mill and the shunning and humiliations that can result.

Astrid, at age 17, mostly keeps her head down and gets by. She hides a vital secret for her two best friends, Kristina and Justin, the high school’s golden couple, but Astrid has a major secret of her own. On the weekends at her part-time job, Astrid’s friendship with Dee has moved from casual comfort to hot-and-heavy make-out sessions, and Astrid likes it quite a bit. But is she gay? She’s not sure, and she’s tired of all the pressure — pressure from her parents to fit in, pressure from Dee to take a stand and come out, pressure from the high school in-crowd to just be normal, have a boyfriend, and not be so weird.

To clear her head, Astrid has the unusual habit of going out into her backyard, lying down on the picnic table, and watching the airplanes fly overhead. As each one passes, Astrid focuses on sending her love to the passengers — not just to say hi, but to send her own love away from her to a place where it might be safe. Astrid can’t share anything with her controlling parents or her too-perfect sister; she can’t open up to her best friend; and she can’t share her doubts and confusion with Dee without Dee taking it as a statement on their relationship. So Astrid sends her love to the passengers overhead, the only people she can love freely and without consequence, and for a while, it helps her.

The rest of the time, the table just sits here with nothing to do. So I lie on it and I look at the sky. I see shapes in the clouds by day and shooting stars by night. And I send love to the passengers inside the airplanes… [But] it feels good to love a thing and not expect anything back. It feels good to not get an argument or any pushiness or any rumors or any bullshit. It’s love without strings. It’s ideal.

Astrid gets by for a while, but things do reach a crisis point eventually, and finally Astrid is pushed far enough that she has to take big risks and take a stand. When she blows up, she does so rather spectacularly, and it’s particularly wonderful to see the fall-out of her explosion.

Ask the Passengers is a quick-paced story, told in the first-person from Astrid’s perspective, so that we see inside her thoughts and fears, and really get a chance to see a smart girl try to take control of her life and at the same time do the right thing. Astrid is willing to come out when it feels right — but how does she know if she’s really gay? Maybe she doesn’t like girls in general, just Dee? And if she’s not sure, is it cowardice to remain hidden, or is it bravery to be committed to speaking nothing but the truth? Is the pressure from Dee to come out any different from the pressure from Astrid’s family to be “normal”? There are some important questions asked here about tolerance and acceptance. At one point, the high school has a mandatory Tolerance Day, complete with pep rally and inspirational speakers — but the day is so clearly aimed at Astrid and her friends that it really just serves to isolate them even more.

Interspersed throughout Astrid’s tale is snippets from different airplane flights. As Astrid sends her love to the passengers overhead, we get small segments throughout the book of different passengers on different planes, who make life-changing decisions, face up to hard truths, or simply find some inner strength to face their problems. The implication is that Astrid’s love has reached them and affected them in some way. Magical thinking, perhaps, but it’s a nice idea — or perhaps it’s only coincidence, and the magic is simply in drawing lines from one person in crisis to another, so that the author is showing the reader that none of us are alone, that everyone has risks to take and decisions to make, and that owning up to our own thoughts and feelings may be the bravest step a person can take.

I had not heard of Ask the Passengers until last week, when it was announced that this book was the winner of the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. A well-deserved piece of recognition, in my opinion. Ask the Passengers is an important book that doesn’t feel preachy, with valuable messages for teens struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in — and an important lesson as well for the adults in teens’ lives about the incalculable value of support and love without judgement or conditions.

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