Bisou is a girl who holds herself apart. She’s friendly but has no real friends, except now, perhaps, for her sweet and loving boyfriend James. She would be happy to just spend time with him and her grandmother indefinitely, but the world intrudes: a boy at her school is found dead in the woods. His neck is broken and his clothes are gone, and no one seems to know how that could have happened.
Except Bisou. Because the very same night Tucker died, she was running through the very same woods where he was found. Only she never saw Tucker. She only saw—and killed—a wolf.
Bisou soon has a lot of questions to ask herself, and a lot more to answer. Not just from the cops, but from Keisha, the editor of the school paper who wants to do a hard-hitting investigation, and from Maggie, Tucker’s ex-girlfriend who seems distraught in all the wrong ways. And then there’s her grandmother, who doesn’t ask any questions at all, but who does seem to have far more answers than she should.
Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with both updated to fit the current state of feminism and gendered violence. It also reminded me of another Red Riding Hood retelling, The Girl in Red by Christina Henry. Both were comfortable with gore and violence, and both were fast-paced and engrossing. It’s also thematically reminiscent of The Female of the Species. If you liked any (or, hopefully, all) of those, you will definitely like Red Hood.
This is an unabashedly feminist book that wants to take on the whole world, or at least the whole world of high school. It tackles slut shaming and sexual assault, consent, abuse, romantic relationships, and female friendships. And it does so in a way that’s honest but not overwhelming, and optimistic while still being realistic. Those are some fine lines to walk, and Arnold walks them well.
I like that each girl—Bisou, Keisha, and Maggie—focus on what they can do rather than everything that’s wrong with the world. Bisou fights. Keisha writes. And Maggie leaves a dangerous situation, speaks up, and goes to the cops. All of these are what the girls are comfortable doing and also what they are uniquely empowered to do. I appreciate that no one approach is considered the “right” one: Maggie doesn’t have to learn how to stab wolves, and Bisou doesn’t have to give up stabbing wolves to write an op-ed. They don’t have to twist themselves into unnatural contortions just to fight the good fight.
And fight they do. With words, with knives, and with their minds, they push back against patriarchal constraints, whether they see them in others or in themselves. They change the ways that make them complicit in the oppression of other women, and they
As much as I like this narrative, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the same incitement to sisterhood, the same anger, and the same story of girls having to fight off sexual assault.
Part of it isn’t on this book, it’s on the world as a whole. Schools still don’t teach sex-positive curriculums focused on consent; law enforcement still doesn’t have sufficient tools and training to deal with gendered violence; laws are still made and enforced by a system biased toward (white) men. What women—especially young women—can do is limited: write op-eds, defend other women against slander and worse, and, if necessary, keep each other’s secrets.
This book avoids the question, though, of why. Why are certain men like this? Why does Bisou have this power? Why do some girls get saved, and others just get dead? Arnold only wants to talk about the immediate problems—the boys, the wolves—but not the causes. And she doesn’t resolve the most relevant—if least dramatic, comparatively—plotline with a budding “incel” teen boy. Why are books about rape culture still about—strong women—generations of women—groups of women—always, always women?
Arnold’s other YA novel, Damsel, was equally high-minded and allegorical. I preferred that one to Red Hood because it was all allegory and fairytale. Not to say that it didn’t have a lot of real-world relevance, but the allegory didn’t have to mesh into the real world. It is very well to speak of warriors, covens, and wolves, but nothing in the real world is quite so neat. Is it enough, anymore, to talk about empowerment? I honestly don’t know. And I honestly did enjoy this book. The prose is beautiful and terrible all at once, and the narratives braid together into something much stronger even than their individual strands. But I’m left with more questions than answers.
Red Hood comes out February 25th.