’89 Walls tells the story of Quinn and Seth, two teenagers living in Lincoln, Nebraska, attending the same high school and the same social sciences class. Quinn comes from an affluent Republican background; Seth comes from a disadvantaged liberal background. Despite the fact that they clash regularly in class over their political beliefs, Seth has a huge crush on Quinn and eventually summons up the courage to tell her.
I should make a disclaimer here: I’m from England and I don’t know a whole lot about American politics, other than what I’ve seen on The West Wing (it’s a documentary, right?). I know that the Republicans are basically similar to our Conservative party and that the democrats are a kind of Labour/LibDem hybrid, and that’s about it.
I say this because ’89 Walls is a very political book. The author clearly has a defined (liberal) political agenda, which she incorporates into her writing. In addition to this, the class in which Quinn and Seth meet (and clash) is a social studies class where the kids and teacher discuss politics (and they discuss it with better-informed opinions than my friends and I did when we were at school!).
I thought the choice of year that the book is set in was very relevant. 1989 was an incredibly important year, politically-speaking. Even I know that. The Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the first free elections in Poland, glasnost and the fatwah on Salman Rushdie. And yet, despite the fact that ’89 Walls is set twenty-six years ago, there are echoes of what happened then in today’s politics, especially with the current tension in Russia and the Ukraine and the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Against this political backdrop, Quinn and Seth go from being attracted to each other to forming a relationship, despite the differences in their opinions and backgrounds. I thought the way their relationship was written was incredibly sweet: the author doesn’t rely on instalove or love triangles to create tension (thank god); the tension is all about their material and ideological differences and having to figure out whether their beliefs are the right ones, or whether their relationship has changed their viewpoints.
I thought the author balanced her characters out nicely and showed really good character development. Quinn’s dad, a republican, could have been painted as a full-on bad guy complete with devils horns, but in fact Ms Pierson shows the reasoning behind his politics, in a kind of ‘This is why Quinn’s dad thinks this way. He’s not the antichrist, he genuinely thinks that his policies are the best ones for the American people.’ Similarly, Seth’s mum, a former activist and liberal, now suffering from MS, could have been painted as a saint, but actually she comes across as cranky and bigoted in her own way, especially when she assumes that Quinn is going to string Seth along and then dump him, purely because she’s from a wealthy background. All the characters in the book develop as the story moves along and all of them are challenged in their beliefs to some extent.
So here’s a question I kept asking myself: Would I have enjoyed the book as much if I didn’t agree with Ms Piersons political standpoint? I’m honestly not sure. I’m trying to imagine if I would enjoy a book that advocated pro-life as firmly as the author advocates pro-choice and I’m coming up blank.
All in all, though, I really enjoyed ’89 Walls. It made a refreshing change from a lot of the YA fiction that’s going around at the moment. It had a lot of layers and gave me a lot to think about.