Power & the "Tough Enough" Narrative: Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley
When listening to the audiobook of Joy Hensley's debut YA novel, I kept recalling a huge news story from my youth: Shannon Faulkner's two year-long fight to be granted admission to The Citadel, South Carolina's public military college. When the court finally forced the college to allow her admission to the Corps of Cadets, she lasted only a week, having spent much of her time in the school's infirmary.
Years later, Faulkner revealed that she was subject to intense abuse, and feared for not only her own life but the lives of her family members, thanks to death threats she received while at the school.
It was a gut-wrenching thing to watch on the news when I was a teenager. I'd been rooting for Faulkner to succeed, to win for every girl who wanted to smash any number of boys-only clubs (institutional or social) that were inaccessible to us girls.
Sam McKenna, the first-person narrator of Rites of Passage experiences what Faulkner did 20 years ago in this novel about the first female recruit at a fictional military high school, Denmark Military Academy. Sam is from a longtime military family that's a legacy at the DMA. Not only does she carry the burden of being one of four female recruits (they're called "worms" in DMA-speak), she's also carrying the burden of living up to her family name.
Needless to say, Sam isn't welcomed by many of her fellow recruits and most definitely not by most of the upper classmen, who wield tremendous power as corporals of each company of recruits. Her entire support system is a fellow (male) recruit, Kelly; Rev, the DMA's chaplain; Jacks, a townie girl with a knack for hacking; and Drill, the recruit class's fair-minded drill sergeant. That's it--not even her older brother, the cadet corporal, appear to be on her side.
Sam is as much flawed as she is admirable, and that's why I enjoyed being in her head so much--despite that I often had a hard time her situation. She's stubborn, reluctant to ask for help and impulsive. Those qualities kept her from entering Special Snowflake territory, because otherwise her physical and mental toughness would have made Sam too good to be true. It's in the missteps that readers get to really know Sam McKenna.
While I found Rites of Passage tremendously compelling, I also struggled a lot with Sam's story, not because it wasn't compelling, but because I kept asking myself if Sam's fight was really worth it. In this novel, the DMA serves to bolster a culture that's bad for the world. The DMA relies on power imbalances and unquestioning obedience, which is easily open to abuse. It's hard for me to get my head around why a girl would want to be part of something like that.
By joining the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, was Sam complicit in bolstering a system that will always be oppressing a group perceived as other? I don't have an answer to this question, but it's one I chewed on the entire time I was listening to Rites of Passage.
To that end, I found myself wishing that Hensley's novel was more critical of the system she placed her character in. The cadet system she describes relies on the young people to enforce the rules and police the DMA's norms. Adults are very hands-off, even the "good" adults like Rev.
While this is a quasi-military institution, in the end, these are still young people who are being let down by adults tasked with looking after them. I wanted Sam to be angry at the adults who allowed the culture of abuse that predated girls' acceptance in the DMA. I wanted her to smash the entire system and rebuild it into something better, not just gain acceptance into it.
Circling back to the Faulkner case from two decades ago, the narrative out of The Citadel, which has since graduated 300-plus women, is that Shannon wasn't tough enough to hack it there. But it seems to me that it's the institution that wasn't tough enough to embrace something different--there's strength in transformation. In the fictional world of the DMA, that "tough enough" narrative for the female recruits was an undertone that niggled at me. This was particularly in the case of Sam's roommate--in a narrative clearly borrowed from Faulkner's experience--who spends most of her time in the infirmary, successfully avoiding the most grueling aspects of military school life.
Additionally, the hook that Sam can't turn down a dare didn't particularly serve the story. I realize it was drawn from the author's own experience but there was already plenty of motivation behind Sam's decision without it. Her family legacy and a tragedy that touches her were sufficient reasons for her joining the DMA. Further, while the dare is referenced in the first line of the novel, it's perhaps referenced two or three additional times--the dare makes for a memorable sales pitch for the book, but nothing more.
My verbosity may be getting out of hand at this point, but I wanted to touch on one other element of Rites of Passage that had me thinking: the romance. There's very quiet sort of romance between Sam and her drill sergeant. And on its face, I loved the execution--it's typified by longing and wishing on both individuals' parts, and not much more. It's in many ways, the thing that kept reminding me that this was a story about high school students.
But at the same time, I was conflicted. Drill having Sam's back had righteous motivation, but I also wished that he cared about Sam solely because it was the right thing to do--without the added incentive of Sam being the girl Drill crushed on--in the face of so many of the other cadets in power who were doing the wrong thing. What about the other female recruits? Did they not get quite the same protection because they weren't Drill's love interest? Is this more of the uncomfortable "tough enough" narrative at work?
I'm unintentionally sounding more critical of Rites of Passage than I intended. I gave this novel four stars on Goodreads and definitely recommend it, especially the excellent audiobook edition which is read by my favorite narrator, Kristine Hvam. But it's also a novel that's worth considering with a critical eye in terms of the choices the author makes in how to steer the novel's course and the character's choices and the culture they reinforce.