All the Wind in the World, by Samatha Mabry, Algonquin Young Readers, 273 pages
I love YA novels and try to read a least one a month. I find them refreshing and without the cynicism that populates too many adult novels. Plus I enjoy the pacing, the characters, and the action. Mostly, I enjoy the innocence.
All the Wind in the World, which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and also a 2017 Booklist Editor’s Choice, wasn’t what I expected. There wasn’t much innocence. Most of it was dark, and bleak. At times it was downright depressing.
This was necessary, though, because the story takes place in a dark and bleak future, in a Southwest ravaged by climate change, in a dry and barren desert where windstorms are the norm, along with swarms of bees, the threat of witches and other dangers.
The book is a blend of dystopic fable and magical realism that relies on instances of our past (the working conditions of field hands and slavery, for instance) to predict the future. It isn’t a very cheery picture. In a world where there is little rain and little chance of growing crops, Sarah Jac and her secret boyfriend James (they present themselves as cousins) work the fields on Southwestern ranches, harvesting maguey, which is used to make alcohol; the water shortage has increased the value of alcohol.
Note: maguey is another word for the agave plant, which grows in southwestern environments and is used to make mezcal.
After Sarah Jac accidentally injures a foreman, she and James jump a train and find themselves at the Real Marvelous Ranch, which is rumored to be cursed.
From then on it’s a series of disasters and bad timing, including deaths, rebellions and betrayals that ultimately lead to Sarah Jac’s impending execution (spoiler alert: James saves her, but at a heavy cost).
What makes the book, though, is a carefully rendered balance of magical elements along with descriptions of the rough working conditions of the maguey harvesters, who have little access to fresh food, health care, crappy living conditions and very limited rights. When contrasted with the owner’s family, it presents readers with a thoughtful perspective on labor and income inequality.
All the Wind in the World is a fast and engrossing read filled with action, tender moments and choices. It’s difficult not to fall in love and root for Sarah Jac, though it’s harder to feel the same for James, who often comes across as rote and uncaring. There’s a definite lack of character development on his part, causing some of his actions to feel false and forced.
Still, the magical elements (prophecies, witches, good luck charms, little girls who may or may not be able to control the wind) add a slice of mystery that works well to thicken the plot and add refreshing complexities. Mabry has created a unique and haunting world, where bees and dust are fiercer than man and the land speaks in the voice of the wind.
My biggest complaint? I wanted to see Sarah Jac make choices based on herself and her own needs, not on a boy. Mabry writes us a strong female heroine who depends upon her own smarts yet, in the end, it still comes down to the-boy-saving-the-girl-at-the-last-minute. It’s time to change this old storyline, especially in impressionable YA books.
My rating? 4 stars