‘Girl in Reverse’ explores KC prejudice and a girl’s coming of age

07/25/2014 7:00 AM

07/24/2014 3:17 PM

Barbara Stuber’s “Girl in Reverse” offers what feels like a refresher course in being human.

Set near the Country Club Plaza in 1951, this is the story of Lily Firestone, a Chinese girl adopted into a white family at an early age from Kansas City’s Sisters of Mercy Children’s Home.

Six months into the Korean War, Lily faces continual taunts from her high school classmates.

A classmate shares a current event in the form of a political cartoon featuring a tank full of soldiers with crossed eyes and bucktoothed smiles. “‘It’s an army tank stuffed with Chinese commies about to crush all these little kids in the crosswalk.’ … He bucks his teeth at me, crosses his eyes, and fake coughs, ‘Commie.’”

Lily, who is easygoing and has effortlessly avoided conflict for all of her 16 years, leaves the classroom. She later comes to think of this current event as “the cartoon that was the catalyst for my career as a real person.”

She had never been interested in uncovering information about her birth parents, but as the cruelty at school escalates along with the war, she finds that her adoptive parents don’t understand the prejudice she faces.

“What would mother say if I asked her for advice? Go quietly to the bathtub, Lillian, and soak in bleach water.

“Dad’s advice? Make a joke of it.

“Ralph’s? Be a hero.

“My advice to myself? Carry Kleenex.”

She looks for comfort in “reverse,” as she thinks of it, digging for information about her birth mother, called “Gone Mom.”

Lily’s brother, Ralph, a chubby Boy Scout, is “the coolest uncool brother on earth.” He calls Lily a hero for walking away when others insult her. He champions her search for her biological mother and makes her injuries his personal business because he loves her deeply.

Elliot James is Lily’s disheveled-artist love interest. She meets him during the detention she serves for leaving school. He “seems totally untouched by what other people think.”

Through association with Elliot and her time cleaning the art room, Lily meets the janitor, Mr. Howard. The black man helps her navigate racism and is a bit of a sage.

When he learns that Ralph is being teased for having a Chinese sister, Mr. Howard arranges to be a guest speaker at one of Ralph’s Scout meetings.

He buys prisms for the boys and asks them what color they are. They all answer that the prisms are clear. When turned in a beam of sunlight, of course, a prism reveals every color, “… but you went ahead and called it clear because somebody else did.”

Mr. Howard tells the boys, “Every time you notice somebody mislabeling somebody, maybe calling them something bad or stupid because of what they see on the surface — light up the prism in your brain and think smart.”

It was hard not to hear Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Lily hunts for clues about her mother in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and, through her research there, ultimately stumbles upon a parent she hadn’t meant to search for.

Stuber, a docent at the Nelson, ties art conservation into Lily’s search for identity in an unexpected way that lends a powerful depth to her work. “The accurate history of an artwork is key. Meaning and identity are often revealed in layers.”

Furthermore, she writes: “The conservator’s task is to uncover the layers: hidden underpainting, mealy bugs in the wood glue, fingerprints, cigar ashes, staples in the impasto — all the clues to an artwork’s creation and creator. Stories lurk under every surface.”

“Girl in Reverse” is about becoming one’s own person in a variety of senses, not only learning how to stand up to bullies or honing the ability to recognize and combat prejudice. The love story between Lily and Elliot is lighthearted and endearing. Set in the early ’50s, it feels charming and safe.

Although the love scenes are chaste by today’s standards, Stuber still delivers the thrill of first love.

Elliot tells Lily, concerning art, “I like Chinese stuff.”

Her response: “What?

“Heatstroke.

“Mind smoke …

“The whole universe has caught fire at his use of the word ‘stuff.’ Is he referring to paper umbrellas or soy sauce or humans?”

It was absolutely refreshing to read a book containing the simple reminder, “An unused backbone gets weak.”

“Girl in Reverse” is shelved as a young adult book, but it’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking and would be a treat for any reader older than 14.

Reach Anne Kniggendorf at akknigg@gmail.com.

Girl in Reverse, by Barbara Stuber (336 pages; Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99)

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