In Alison Cherry’s Red, Scarletville, Iowa, was founded 75 years ago by redheads, for redheads as a “national redhead sanctuary.” In Scarletville, red hair is appreciated, fawned over and treasured. Despite claims to the contrary by town officials, everyone in Scarletville knows the truth: If you don’t have red hair, you should expect to be treated like a second-class citizen. If you’re in high school, you won’t get a starring role in the play, you won’t get a spot on the Scholastic Bowl team, and there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that you’ll be nominated for Prom Queen.
Felicity St. John is one of the most popular girls in her class—or, well, she’s one of the most popular redheads, and after all, they’re the only ones who really matter. She’s dating a hot football player, she’s co-curating the art show, and if things go her way, she’s got a good chance of winning the upcoming Miss Scarlet pageant. Even other redheads are in awe of her hair, which is beautiful, lustrous, healthy…and secretly fake. She was born a strawberry blonde, and in order to hide the shame of being a mere strawbie, her mother started dyeing Felicity’s hair when she was 2 years old.
Now, someone has discovered her secret…and she’s being BLACKMAILED.
I had extremely mixed feelings about Red. Some aspects of it really, REALLY worked, and others really, REALLY didn’t.
Strongest: Felicity. Felicity is extremely self-absorbed—her only real concerns are keeping her secret under wraps and her popularity intact. In the age of Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen, it’s unusual to find a character who is quite as disinterested in social justice as our Miss St. John. Her cluelessness and her selfishness will drive some readers bananas, but for others (like me), her voice will ring true and feel refreshingly honest.
Hiding in plain sight—passing, basically—means that she has to tacitly agree with all of the daily slights against non-redheads, and a lifetime of that has led her to internalize all of it: Even though it never stops being hurtful, she buys into it. Most of the time, she really believes that redheads are somehow BETTER than non-redheads: Which, of course, means that, consciously or not, she’s dealing with some serious self-esteem issues.
Weakest: the premise. I can handle the idea of a group of people in a small town being given preferential treatment for something that, from the outside, looks vaguely ridiculous. In Red, the off-the-wall satircal aspects are entirely confined within town lines—characters literally get treated differently when they leave Scarletville—and it’s extremely difficult to reconcile the ridiculous with the realistic.
What I had an even harder time with is that Red, deliberately or not, creates a very easy parallel to issues surrounding racism. And yet, despite being set in the present day, despite the story opening with a reporter confronting the mayor about discriminatory behavior, even though it would be the easiest leap in the world to make, racism never actually comes up—and given that red hair occurs most often in the Caucasian population, that seems like a rather serious omission.
As a story about a girl finding the courage to tell the world who she really is, it works pretty well. As a satire, not so much.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.