Book review by Femke Boom
“I think you should write about the one that scares you the most. Taking risks and making choices in spite of fear – it’s what makes our life story compelling.”
With the Fire on High is a contemporary Young Adult novel by Elizabeth Acevedo. It tells the story of Emoni Santiago, a seventeen-year-old girl who has a daughter of two. She’s trying her best to juggle work, family and high school. There is only one thing that can help her forget her sorrows, even if it’s just for a brief moment: cooking.
“The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance.”
At first sight With the Fire on High seems like a book about a teenage mother trying to find a way to chase her dreams, despite the hardships life has thrown at her. The idea of the novel gave me some Jane the Virgin vibes, even though the latter is hardly about a teenager. With the Fire on High turned out to be diverse, and showed the multifaceted issues faced by the protagonist Emoni. The majority of the characters are persons of colour (POC), and Emoni’s best friend, Angelica, is lesbian. It also portrays characters from various backgrounds: from poor to fairly fortunate. The majority of it is set in Philadelphia, mostly at Emoni’s place or at her high school.
I found it refreshing to read a book that contains many POC characters. It also questions the notion of ethnicity within this group, which is shown most prominently through Emoni herself. Emoni has Latin as well as African American roots. It is shown a couple of times that society tends to place her within one box: either as a Latina or as a black person. She wishes for neither to be ignored. It is interesting how this is brought forth. Emoni’s Spanish is accented (due to her American English), which makes those of Latin descent question her roots, as if she’s somehow not validated due to a lack of fluency. Her ‘blackness’ is questioned similarly: if she’s a Latina, how can she also identify as African American? And is her skin dark enough? Emoni shows that there’s always more than one side to a person, and there’s no need for others to worry about something insignificant.
Additionally, ethnicity causes tension, which is very much present in today’s society. One time the protagonist is cooing to her little daughter on the bus. A white woman first comments on how adorable the child is, and then asks if she’s Emoni’s younger sister. Emoni replies that it’s her daughter. The demeanor of the woman immediately changes, looking at Emoni with distaste. Emoni contemplates on whether it’s due to her being POC, thinking that she ‘knows that look’. She says that it’s likely that the woman would be more sympathetic to a white girl, but that, simultaneously, this might be prejudice on Emoni’s behalf as the woman is white. Or, in other words: why would she assume the worst?
“(…) or why I’m accused of being the irresponsible one but he’s so often excused from having to be as much of a father as I am a mother.”
Gender also comes into play in With the Fire on High. Emoni is usually looked down upon as she had a child; boys think she’s ‘easy’, and many others find her pathetic. The father, Tyrone, doesn’t face this prejudice. Tyrone’s parents treat the two of them in a similar fashion. Emoni is treated poorly, as they find she’s the one to blame. Tyrone is the victim in this case, although he had as much of a part to play in the making of the child as Emoni. On top of that, he’s often excused from his duties as a parent in comparison to Emoni. The two don’t live together, nor are dating, but have a system in which Tyrone can have the child for the weekend every two weeks. However, when the daughter falls ill at day-care and Emoni can’t be contacted, they try to contact Tyrone. Tyrone’s parents are mad at Emoni for this event, even though she normally takes good care of her daughter – just this one time she wasn’t available. It shows how society assumes what role each parent has to take. Men are more easily excused from their duties, while women are frowned upon if a small thing goes wrong.
“Girl, it’s time to step into your own light and stop being afraid.”
This book was different from the novels I usually read. I picked it particularly for the topic of ‘teenage mother’, as I felt like it was something I should read as well. Yes, it has a good ending, which may be a little unrealistic. Yet, it seems necessary too: it shows that one’s life doesn’t necessarily end when having a child whilst being young. The cooking aspect of the book, which I haven’t really discussed above, is wonderful too. It makes you crave comfort food. With the Fire on High also contains three recipes; one before each new part of the book. It’s possible to try them out, although you may want to have some cooking skills already as it doesn’t come with exact measurements. Despite its serious themes, parts of the novel are light-hearted, and you’ll be left hungry for more.