Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
Soho Press, Penguin Random House, 18 June 2019
350 pages, paperback, $21.99 CAD, 978-1-64129-034-0
Ages 16+, Grades 10-12
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Fantasy
Trigger Warning: Emotional/Sexual Childhood Abuse, Sexual Assault and Rape-Recovery
“Not my bio dad,” Anna said. “But like – my father, you know? He and his boyfriend were there when I was born. He cut my umbilical cord. They were both supposed to be my dads, but the other died when I was a baby. I only remember Ron.”
Pallas nodded. “We’re not all related, either. I mean, my mom and dad are. Related to me. But they aren’t together like a couple. They used to be, but not now.”
Queer in every sense of the term, Michelle Ruiz Keil’s All of Us with Wings is an ethically handled rape-recovery narrative which redefines what family and home mean. On the run from her past, seventeen-year-old Xochi becomes the governess of precocious twelve-year old Pallas. The last thing she expects to find is a new home or a new family, but this is exactly what happens. This new family is one she chooses to be part of and that chooses to love her in return, exercising an agency in her choice that any member of the queer community reading this book—including me—would be delighted about. Pallas’s rock-band family brings to life this chosen family ethic in their every quirky move, whether it’s Kiki and Bubbles playing big sister to Xochi, Kylen parenting Pallas better than her own parents or all of them living together in one big house despite being unrelated by blood.
But Xochi’s past rears its ugly head to shatter the somewhat precious status quo she has managed to build for herself. A forbidden romance with one of the band members—Pallas’s own father, a man over a decade elder than her—becomes the least of her problems when she and Pallas accidentally summon two Waterbabies while playing around in jest after a rock-party. It isn’t long before we realize that their targets are people Xochi left behind.
Ruiz Keil’s writing style is unique in that she shifts between different points of view. Known for her way of incorporating animals into her narratives, she devotes entire chapters to the POV of the neighbor’s magical cat, Peablossom. But the delight of watching cats disdain their masters is offset by the slightly jarring shifts in human POVs—Ruiz Keil is strict with her reader’s attention, forcing them to read closely by moving between characters very fast. Much of the action stays with Xochi, who must not only confront her rapist but also the mother who left her behind. However, Pallas and other family members—including Xochi’s said abusers—get a fair amount of screen-time. This allows her to humanize these characters as well as point out just how “normal” rapists and abusers can be, hiding as they do in plain sight. She thus implicates not just the individual, but the systemic flaws that create and allow such individuals to flourish.
Ruiz Keil is masterful in the ethical questions she raises. On the one hand, the queer woman in me was ecstatic at the chosen family arc that she so beautifully constructs. Where Xochi must confront the birth mother who abandons her, she also has a family that embodies what familial love means in their choice to be her family in a way Gina never could. And rarely have I seen such a positive representation of non-white negotiation of polyamory before in YA literature as the one Ruiz Keil presents here.
On the other hand, the romance between Xochi and Pallas’s father, Leviticus, and the uncomfortable parallels that Ruiz Keil draws between Leviticus and Xochi’s rapist left me discomfited through my first read. The power differential—Leviticus is not only older but also her employer—is marked and pointed. Arguably a conscious choice that Ruiz Keil makes, it is this very power differential that is subverted by the end. Xochi is a teenager, but trauma makes her much older than her actual age. The book asks the reader to sit in the discomfort and examine it—look, it says, at the trauma of young girls, and examine the system that would let them be victimized repeatedly.
The book is heavy, but not heavy-handed. If there is the trauma of rape and sexual assault, there is also the chosen family that pulls Xochi into their midst and helps her heal with their love and acceptance. To that end, All of Us with Wings is unapologetically queer, sexy and colorful. It doesn’t pull its punches, but it also examines narratives of rape recovery in an as ethical a manner as possible. There is hope, it says. There is family. There is life beyond the trauma.
And there is, of course, the cat.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.