“God I hate this crap!” June growls. A dog-eared sheet of paper hangs between her fingertips and you’d think it was poisonous, a danger to life and limb. “We might as well just stayed in regular dumbtard English.”
Regretfully, I agree with her. Looking at this year’s sophomore reading list is about as exciting as reading the plumbing section in the Greenville Yellow Pages. There are two Jane Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, along with Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. This isn’t what we expected when we signed up for AP English II last Spring. We’d hoped to be challenged with the mysteries post-modernist literature, maybe turned into eloquent literary gurus in our own right. But now, with the cruel reality of living in an isolated Southern town staring is in the face, our hopes have gone the way of the T-rex and woolly mammoth.
“Maybe it won’t be that bad. I know Emma is supposed to be pretty good.” My lie sounds as hollow as a bass drum.
“Stupid s***,” June says, loud enough for the grannies in the Christian Living section to hear.
We’re standing at the School List section of Books-A-Million, rows of discount paperback classics sprawled in front of us. June grabs one, then another, and studies them carefully.
“They’re not even abridged.” Her moan is more zombie than orgasmic.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have waited until the last second to begin reading. We’ve had the list for a while (since May), and an early start would’ve helped. We could’ve digested this burden slowly like Boba Fett in the Sarlacc pit. Now we’re going to have to choke it all down without chewing. Mrs. Powell (whom everyone call’s Turkey because of the loose skin under her neck, she was a true fatty before discovering the Atkins diet and thinning to the point of weightlessness) will be tough and ask for essays, lots of them.
“Maybe you can buy one, and I can buy the other,” I recommend. “We can help each other out?”
June looks at me. We know SparkNotes and Wikipedia won’t do, Turkey keeps printouts displayed on her desk, and grades are too crucial for June to just BS and get a “B” or “C.”
“We’ll split Bronte, and read them together and discuss,” I add, hoping to ease the burden. June already has enough to worry about without having to read dense prose and dissect unbearable Georgian mannerisms on her own.
She grunts and looks at the next section over. Displayed are the monthly picks of three or four reading clubs. Everything’s modern and June smacks her pink lips: Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, even some Printz award-winning Y.A. Looking for Alaska and Going Bovine. Most of them she already owns. Her room (if you can call it that, her camper has one door and hardly contains enough space to breath) is stacked high with books bought, borrowed, and stolen over the years, with nothing written before 1950 allowed, save for some intolerable William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, and Go Down, Moses. I think she keeps him around just to feel superior.
“Well?” I ask.
She closes her eyes and smiles, her mind somewhere beautiful and distant. “In college, there be no more Austen, or Beowulf, or Henry James…” her words trail as she hands me Emma, keeping Pride and Prejudice for herself, “just stuff that matters.”
I smile, suspecting she’s completely wrong; the “classics” will be with us ’til Judgment Day. And there’s a question in this. I’ve never read Jane Austen and am not sure what her novels have to do with June’s or my life. If they would, by some roundabout way, move her into a real house or bring her father back from Tijuana or Juarez or wherever he makes his collect calls from. But maybe we should give Mrs. Powell (or whoever makes these book selections) a chance. They do mean the best for us, don’t they?
“I’ll pay for all of Bronte,” I say, knowing that June can barely afford one Signet classic while splitting another. “We’ll take turns reading it.”