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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Burying the Hatchet
It is surprisingly easy to sympathize with Lizzie Borden.
The 1892 murders for which she is famous were not so long ago that her story has dissolved entirely into urban legend, but the case itself was so sensationalized that liberties are often taken. Take the children’s song that is most people’s first—and sometimes only—introduction to the crime: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / Gave her mother forty whacks.”
For starters, it was a hatchet, not an axe. Abby Durfee Gray Borden was Lizzie’s stepmother, not her mother, and it took around 17 blows to kill her, not 40. And though she was, and still remains, a major suspect in the case, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders.
Like most highly publicized cases, this one was of considerable interest to the general public. As an unsolved case, that interest has lingered. Unsurprising, then, that Lizzie has made her way into YA, both in nonfiction true-crime accounts, like Sarah Miller’s The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century (2016), and in fictional re-creations, like Trisha Leaver’s historical novel Sweet Madness (2015). Most recent is Dawn Ius’ Lizzie, which, somewhat strangely, chooses to reimagine Lizzie’s circumstances in the modern day.
Potential murderer she may be, but few seem content to lay the blame on her shoulders and close the door. By some accounts, Lizzie was a traumatized girl who may have been physically and sexually abused by her father. Ius in particular seizes this narrative: her twenty-first-century Lizzie is beaten and emotionally manipulated by her father and suffers under a stiflingly religious upbringing. It offers a motive, if not quite a justification, for murder while at the same time painting Lizzie in an undeniably sympathetic light.
Lizzie Borden is not the first to be elevated from murderer to folk hero—just look at Bonnie and Clyde. But that’s not quite what this is. Historical or fictionalized, she’s far from the only girl with a potentially murderous edge to appear in YA, and she’s certainly not the only one to be portrayed as hero instead of villain. Sometimes there’s a gray area: Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls around Us (2015) is a twisted psychological thriller that cannily eyes two dancers, one imprisoned for murder. Others, like Katherine Ewell’s Dear Killer (2014), try to get inside the mind of a murderer and find something redeemable. And others still, like Carolyn Lee Adams’ Ruthless (2015), find a dark-hearted girl cast as heroine only because something worse than she stalks the pages.
From there, the waters get even murkier.
In her debut, Allegedly (2016), Tiffany D. Jackson offers up Mary B. Addison, an African American teen who has been imprisoned since she was nine, convicted of murdering a white infant. The book is many things—an indictment of the justice system, a psychological examination, a compelling narrative—but throughout it all, readers are accompanied by the unsettling Mary. The crime she allegedly committed is horrific, there’s no denying that, but we want nothing more than to believe in her innocence.
In The Female of the Species (2016), Mindy McGinnis gives us Mary’s photo negative in Alex, who is—there’s no better phrase for it—a stone-cold killer. But there’s a catch, Dexter-style: the man Alex slaughters in the early pages of the novel is not a stranger or an innocent. He’s the man who raped and murdered Alex’s sister and went free. There is no gray area or reasonable doubt here—Alex commits a premeditated murder—but as the book progresses, it’s nevertheless hard not to root for her. In the context of her world, her actions seem justifiable.
What prompted these stories? Why this thirst for violent women? More important, why this specific type of violent woman? These aren’t femme fatales; more often than not, they’re traumatized girls. They aren’t (thankfully) sexualized, but there’s still something intoxicating about their stories. They certainly aren’t portrayed as role models—theirs is not an act to follow, not a recommended course of behavior—but despite knowing better, we can’t help but find something admirable about them. What is it that’s paved the way for this dark-horse heroine?
Maybe it’s just this: a seismic shift in what readers want to see. For a long time, we’ve watched girls stay proud and strong beneath the pressure. We’ve watched them turn the other cheek. We’ve watched them acquiesce for too long. Maybe, for once, it feels good to go to the other extreme, no matter how extreme it may be.
We’re tired of watching girls bury the hatchet. We want to see them use it.
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