Going Underground by Susan Vaught

Friday, September 21, 2012

Things I was expecting this book to be:

1. On the cover of my copy there is a quote that says "Few will be able to look their cellphone[s] in the screen without a shudder and a 'what if...?'" - BCCB. Which made me incredibly excited, thinking that this would be a book about mobile phones taking over people's brains! Like The X-Files episode Blood (everything is an X-Files episode, and if it's not it will have been a Simpsons episode). I do so love technology controlling us and turning us evil (in fiction!). Unfortunately that is not what this book is about. I would love it if someone did write a book about evil mobile phones, though.

2. The title is 'Going Underground', and considering the amount of musical references in the book I am surprised the Jam song of the same name wasn't mentioned. (I loved the song references, despite the fact that they tended to be a little obscure and may date quickly, though the whole subject matter of the book will date quickly.) I was expecting something more death-centric. Again, mobile phones killing people. As it is, the protagonist just works as a grave digger.

3. The blurb on the back of the book begins: Del's not a bad guy. He's just a misunderstood criminal. (I dislike the word blurb. Blurb, blurb, blurb. It's like how an alien speaks.) The book is structured to jump between the present day and the event three years ago that derailed Del's life, where he became a criminal. It was suspenseful and well-placed, but what the crime actually turned out to be was quite anti-climactic. I was expecting this to be a book that made the reader empathise with a character that was genuinely bad or had done genuinely bad things. But no! The protagonist is likeable, and not a bad person at all. I was expecting something dark and twisted and it wasn't.

What this book actually was about (This is where I get a little bit spoiler-iffic, so look away now if you're planning on reading and want to be surprised. It's very easy to guess, however): sexting*.

Should I have opened with the blurb? Here's the blurb:
Del is a good kid who’s been caught in horrible circumstances. At seventeen, he’s trying to put his life together after an incident in his past that made him a social outcast—and a felon. As a result, he can’t get into college; the only job he can find is digging graves; and when he finally meets a girl he might fall in love with, there’s a sea of complications that threatens to bring the world crashing down around him again. But what has Del done? Basing her story on real-life cases of teens in trouble with the law for texting explicit photos, Susan Vaught has created a moving portrait of an immensely likable character caught in a highly controversial legal scenario.

I think this is suitable for the twelve and up YA readers, as the issue is well-handled. I think as an older reader, the story is less impactful. It would've been more surprising had I read it at twelve or thirteen, and I think the older you become the less you tolerate 'lessons' in books, as subtle as they are. I remember 'sexting' being a shocking thing that was reported on a lot five or six years ago, but I'm not sure whether that's just because that was when it first came to my attention (I was, and remain, really grossed out).

This book does tend towards just being an 'issues' novel, but it's still well-written and full of interesting characters and is genuinely enjoyable. It doesn't demonise any of the characters for their behaviour (except the attorney who prosecutes the kids, who doesn't feature in the book at all, but is mentioned as being fairly nasty), as many discussions regarding sexting do. It's not about how promiscuous/irresponsible/downright awful kids today are - the characters are largely realistic and endearing, and what happens to them occur due to naivety and general unfairness, rather than due to any big moral issue with The Youth of Today. So I liked how the issue was dealt with.

Going Underground balances humourous and serious moments well, is an easy read and I think very accessible for younger readers and both girls and boys.

 *I am not aware of any actual teenager who uses the word sexting. I bet whoever came up with it felt really smart, though.
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