It’s been well-documented that I’m on a quest for a quality sports-themed young adult novel, particularly one with a female main character.
Unfortunately, much of the time my enthusiasm for the newest sports book is immediately tempered by the sports serving as mere window dressing to bring the protagonist together with a Very Attractive Boy.
But I keep soldiering on, seeking one of these stories that really works. However, I almost passed on Liz Fichera’s debut, Hooked, which features a Native American girl in Arizona who makes a splash with her golf mastery while negotiating a burgeoning relationship with a boy on her team (I haven’t had great luck with Harlequin Teen titles). But, a short interview with Liz on Stacked piqued my interest and I thought I’d give it a try, and despite some flaws, it was a surprisingly compelling read.
Fredricka (Fred) Oday lives on the Gila reservation, which abuts the city of Phoenix, Arizona. Like many kids growing up on the reservation, Fred’s options after graduation are pretty limited. Except she’s got something special going for her: a killer golf game. She learned to play because her father works at the golf course. Over the years, she’s excelled to the point that her high school’s golf coach adds her to the boys varsity team (there isn’t a girls team).
However, despite her phenomenal skills on the golf course, she’s not welcomed with open arms. A player with a bad attitude and mediocre game, Seth, is removed from the team to make a space for Fred and the boys aren’t happy. They’re furious that a girl is on their team, but they are even more upset about a girl from the reservation on their team that replaced their buddy.
Then my eyes lowered to my seat, the empty one at the front of the row. There was a folded newspaper waiting on my desk, maybe the same one that Ryan had shown me in the library, and my stomach somersaulted all over again. Quickly, I placed my backpack underneath my desk and slipped into the seat. My smile faded when I found the photo on page three of the sports section, the same one where I was holding my driver on the fourth tee. Someone had used a black marker to draw a band around my forehead with feathers on each side. A crude Indian headdress. My nostrils flared and my breathing quickened. The photo turned cloudy the longer I stared at it. I had to swallow back the bile building deep in my throat. I folded and then crumpled the newspaper and stuffed it inside my backpack. I wanted to shred it into a million tiny pieces.
Despite the tensions among teammates, there’s chemistry between Fred and Ryan, the team’s other top golfer with whom she’s paired at tournaments.
Told in alternating points of view from both Fred and Ryan’s perspective, Hooked explores all of these tensions against a backdrop of the American southwest.
I generally have mixed feelings about the first-person alternating point-of-view narrative style, however in Hooked, it makes sense, as it further serves to emphasize the contrast between Fred and Ryan’s lives. Fred’s reservation is near Ryan’s upper class neighborhood, but their world’s are strikingly different. Ryan lives the life of a typical privileged teen, while Fred’s family struggles financially, but lives in the open spaces of the Arizona desert. College for Ryan is a guarantee, while Fred’s hope for higher education rests on a golf scholarship. Otherwise, she fears that her path will stop on the reservation.
I swallowed. I worked hard not to picture the future at all. I couldn’t imagine working at the gas station, the restaurant or even the Indian casino for the rest of my life. Whenever I did, it felt like someone pressing on my chest with both hands.
Little things also contrast the two. Fred uses an old golf bag and only has sneakers to wear, rather than golf shoes. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a wardrobe full of clothing. But she does have a close relationship with her father (her mother is an alcoholic) and her entire community rooting for her golfing success. Ryan’s parents are distant, absorbed in their careers. When the two finally start talking after a very bumpy road, the little differences are what’s striking.
I swallowed. “Um, music?” I didn’t have much time for music, not with homework and practice and weekend shifts at the restaurant. “Anything, really,” I said, although that was a lie, too. I’d have bet Ryan never listened to—had never even heard of—Native Radio.
“Anything, huh,” Ryan said, making a face as he switched through the channels. “How about this?” Electric-guitar music invaded the air. “This is one of my playlists.”
“On my iPod?”
“Oh, yeah. Right,” I answered over the music. Just because I didn’t have my own iPod didn’t mean I’d never heard of them. “This sounds good.”
I should first rewind a bit and talk about the climate Ryan and his friends—especially Seth—create for Fred on the golf team. It’s brutal. They put bricks in her golf bag, set her up to appear like a cheater and call her “Pocahantas.” Fred avoids confronting the boys and instead destroys them on the golf course. But unlike a lot of books, this doesn’t lead to acceptance. Instead, they’re resentful and angry. Except Ryan, contrary to his instinct to be loyal to his friend who was removed from the team, is intrigued by Fred and develops respect for her skills on the course and develops the beginnings of an attraction for the girl he’s supposed to hate.
At this point, Fred and Ryan’s worlds collide. He tries to bring her into his social circle, inviting her to a party at his house where she feelings unwanted and out-of-place. Ryan’s pretty clueless about Fred’s situation, always having been popular and accepted, and really doesn’t understand that he’s essentially brought Fred into a hostile environment.
“Seriously, Fred,” Gwyneth said. “That is your name, isn’t it?” I nodded. “By the end of the night, bathing suits are pretty much optional,” she added, looking over my head to Ryan with a grin on her face that said they shared some kind of a secret. The people at the table laughed again. My insides lurched. What was it about white people and hot tubs?
Even though Ryan’s attempt to befriend Fred is disastrous, he asks her out and the two seem headed for a burgeoning relationship.
“We could just go somewhere and talk if you don’t like movies.”
“Go somewhere?” I blinked away the dryness beginning to cloud my eyes.
“Yeah, it’s been fun talking to you today. I guess…” His head tilted as his shoulders lifted. “I guess I’m not ready for it to end.” Then his cheeks darkened, and I felt a relieved smile stretch across my face. That might have been the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me in the History of Ever.
Everything goes awry at school through a series of Big Misunderstandings. The bulk of Hooked takes place following this ill-fated date and subsequent conflict. While the novel is very much marketed as a romance (just look at the cover), it’s really primarily about Fred’s personal journey to becoming self-assured thanks to her golfing, and secondarily about the relationship between the two. Ryan’s story is less significant, though important, as he learns to stand up against the bigotry so common in his community.
(See, not a romance.)
The scenes on the golf course were some of the strongest, leaving me wishing there had been more.
Golf isn’t just a way out of poverty for Fred. It’s something she loves, and she’s a different person when she’s playing. She’s confident and focused.
When I reached the spot, I balanced my bag against the stand, placed the bucket next to it and pulled out my driver. I palmed the club’s face, all chipped and pockmarked from years of use. And just like always, I closed my eyes and took a few practice swings, enjoying the brush of the cool morning air against my cheeks. I swung my club back and forth like a pendulum. It felt good. It always felt good. I waited till the movement loosened all of the muscles in my back and shoulders. One swing, then another. Back and forth. Quickly, my body began to relax. Because I was alone, I started to hum softly with my eyes closed. More practice swings. Back and forth. Back and forth…
The impact of being a golfer on Fred’s identity and her life is clear and it was refreshing to finally—finally!—read a story in which the impact of athletics portrayed this way for a female main character. Being a golfer shapes Fred’s relationship with so much, it’s never simply a vehicle to pair her up with Ryan. It’s what brings her closer to her father, what creates a barrier between her and other kids her age, what sets her apart. I know next to nothing about golf, but Hooked made me believe in its impact.
The same is true of the setting. I’ve lived in the southwest (New Mexico) and it’s a distinctly difference place from the rest of the U.S. In fiction, however, the southwest is is often depicted as a Disneyfied fantasyland that bears little resemblance to the actual place (Barbara Kingsolver wrote one of my favorite exceptions to this over-generalization). I was thrilled the Fichera’s southwest is the real deal. It’s divided economically, socially and ethnically. These divisions and their intersections are one of the reasons the region is so fascinating and that’s one of the major things that characterized living there for me (and the food, of course). I’m glad Fichera didn’t gloss over this in favor of a romanticized version that would make for a less harsh storyline.
Hooked did, however, come up short for me in some areas.
Following the complications which keep Fred and Ryan’s relationship from developing, Fred becomes closer to some of the other girls from the reservation who go to her high school. Unfortunately, the bulk of this takes place off the page. While I was glad that Fred had friendship in her life in addition to golf, I wanted more of this, especially since the bits of dialogue with these characters were so enjoyable.
Kelly spoke. “First thing you should know is this—Fred is like a sister to us.”
“A little sister,” Yolanda added, nodding. “We’re grateful for what you did, Ryan, but we’re still mad at you. You broke her heart, you know.”
“Mean fuck,” Yolanda said underneath her breath.
Kelly’s eyes rolled. “Watch your language, Yo.”
Additionally, for some inexplicable reason, a few Native American terms or tradition are footnoted (at least they were in my review copy). For example, “The Rez” is footnoted, explaining that it is slang for the reservation. Also, a few ceremony names are also footnoted. They’re quite distracting and I felt like they don’t give the reader enough credit, because even without explanation the terms are easily understood within the context of the text. Additionally, one footnote, the aforementioned “Rez” one is written in a conversational tone, like it’s from Fred, while the other are in a simple dictionary style. Had the footnotes been consistently in Fred’s conversational voice, they would have bothered me far less.
Additionally, the novel’s resolution relies far too much on coincidences and is way too neat and tidy to be completely realistic. Everyone has a transformation in this story (and really, personal transformation is a strong theme in the novel), including characters whose changes come far too quickly such as Fred’s alcoholic mother and Seth, who I didn’t believe as redeemable at that point in his life.
Yet, despite that some elements of the book left me wanting more nuance and development, Hooked is a refreshing novel.
The setting read as so real and rich that it made me nostalgic for the region. I could see the desert beyond the barbed wire fence where Fred’s reservation sits. I could feel the sunshine as Ryan and Fred golfed. It’s so vibrant and realistic that it compensated for the short-comings that would normally bother me. Additionally, Fred’s story—and it really is Fred’s story, even though it’s told from two perspectives—is uplifting, but not in a superficial or cheesy way. Her love of golf and the way it enables her to rise above some really lousy situations tells the story of why sports matter to so many young people. I also really appreciated that the focus of this story was in the two teens growing as individuals, rather than the “all consuming ” romance style that’s so popular at the moment.
Fichera has a real knack for creating a tough-to-put-down story with characters with an authentic setting, resulting in a memorable novel that made me excited for Hooked’s 2014 companion, Played.
Hooked is out on January 29, 2013 and is available for preorder now.
FNL Character Rating: Jess Merriweather
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.