Staff Chat: Tradition is Not An Excuse

Joy: We’re going to be talking about TRADITION today, the new YA coming out by Brendan Kiely. We’re all excited about it here in store! Basically, the setting is Fullbrook Academy, which is an elite private boarding school with (as the title indicates) lots of traditions.

James Baxter, a hockey star and former football star, has had something tragic happen while playing sports at his public school and he’s gotten a second chance. He comes to Fullbrook, where he definitely feels like a fish out of water.

Jules Devereux is the other narrative voice. She has been at Fullbrook forever. She is a senior as well, and she is a outspoken feminist fish out of water at a school that really seems to be — although it is co-ed — very much focused on male voices rather than female. The meeting of the two kind of kicks the story off.

What did you two think of the book? This is hitting so many issues. It’s hitting issues about consent, toxic masculinity, the capability of men to be feminists and to stand up, and it definitely is showing so many moments that hit home for me. What about you?

Alexis: What I really liked about it was the idea that a man can grow to be more of a feminist — for example, with how open James Baxter was.

JP: Especially given how he starts out. He becomes the pariah because while playing, he’s hit someone so hard he put them in a wheelchair. He’s been raised to feel that that’s okay on the field.

AG: Right, raised to “destroy” on the field. Then he’s lambasted for doing what he was trained to do. I found that a little sad. He has this open-mindedness toward feminism that the other boys don’t have. There’s that huge contrast between him and Freddie through the whole book.

Freddie is just this character who represents the epitome of toxic masculinity, or just toxic behavior in general, with constant objectification of and disrespect for women.

Laura: Also, he’s the one heading up the “ranking” of the freshmen…

JP: “She’s a ten, she’s a four, she’s a two,” etc.

LM: Exactly.

AG: Obviously Jules has a problem with that. So does “the Viking,” Eileen, a sort of mysterious character for most of the book. I couldn’t really get a handle on her for a while.

JP: Once she tells her story of what happened to her on the night of the winter ball on freshman year, you’re devastated. She’s just putting up with this nickname, but ironically she sees it as, yes, she is a Viking. She is strong. She repurposes it.

We’re all from different ages and backgrounds. Did the book strike you as relatable?

LM: Definitely. Especially that privileged, “devil-may-care, I can get away with anything” attitude that a lot of the guys have at the school was really well-done. For example, the way they portray Jules trying to make a point, and it just being completely overlooked.

JP: That got to me, that particular aspect of her character. I felt for her; all she’s trying to do is say, “open your eyes”… Like, here, I’m going to put a tampon on my desk and you’re not going to freak out, because guess what, girls have periods.

LM: It’s such a pervasive attitude that people have: “we don’t talk about that.”

JP: …And if you want to talk about it, and if you keep wanting to talk about it, then someone’s going to say well, you’re being overwrought, you’re being… not hysterical, necessarily, but crazy because ‘all you want to do is complain.” When, in fact, Jules is trying to point out all these particularly ingrained injustices within the system.

It was so interesting to connect to real life, actually. I saw on Twitter, there’s a professor at Fresno state who said something about the late Barbara Bush, calling her racist.

I saw that pop up, I waited a few seconds, and I looked at the feed again… And what gets criticized first is not her words or her politics, but her profile picture. Immediately the responses go to “well, she’s fat,” criticizing her appearance immediately, slipping away from the words. As I was finishing this book, and as I saw that exchange on Twitter, I thought, that’s exactly what happens.

AG: It happens all the time. I see that happening to men sometimes too, but not nearly as much as it happens to women. Someone online will criticize a male politician’s appearance, but it’s from a different perspective than the constantly sexualized one that women go through — which also happens through the book with the rating of the freshmen girls, etc.

I saw favoritism of the boys throughout the book as well. At one point the teacher says, well, I’m not going to be the one responsible for giving the hockey star an F, so I’ll give him a pass and let him write this again.

I was thinking, would that happen for others? No, it’s favoritism for the sports team, for the male sports star, for the school, too… That’s just natural to them.

JP: I can tell you, having taught a number of years, I was asked to do exactly that for male athletes.

I’ve never been asked to do that for a female athlete. To some degree my female athletes always had to have their shit together. It was more common for them to be academically on target, but not always… But I was never asked to make that accommodation for them.

So it’s so ingrained, it’s so endemic, the story got me thinking about that.

LM: Another thing that stood out to me in that same vein was when Jules tried to call the boys out about ranking the freshmen girls. They responded, “let’s see what you were ranked,” and then it made it “better” that she was an eight. A sense of “what do you have to worry about?”

AG: They still think she’s “hot.” And that’s why they still talk to her, I think. If they perceived her as ugly I think they would have written her off even more.

JP: And because they think she’s attractive, the boys also hoping that this activist “craziness” will drift over into the realm of sex, which they mention explicitly. Unfortunately, instead their actions with her drift into assault, and Jules has to do something rather extreme.

AG: I do feel like Bax [James Baxter] has learned something through the book, though. He starts thinking for himself about these issues, and I think he wanted to do something good about it.

I sympathize with him so much. He was a softer kind of guy who was riled up and trained on the field, but when he literally destroyed somebody, he felt terrible about it; obviously that real-life destruction wasn’t his intent. Even he says, ‘it was always about the game.’

JP: …Though he had always felt out of place at Fullbrook. How much of that feeling was him being ostracized by others, though, and how much of it was his perception because he didn’t come from money?

Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people at the school know the traditions. Whether they like it or not, they are working around them, dealing with them, or tamping themselves down tight. But Bax doesn’t know the things they do in keeping with that tradition. Ultimately, as Jules says, tradition is not an excuse.

Do we think this is more intense because it’s in a private school with tons of money? Does money encourage this toxicity of behavior, in guys and girls? Did you see anything like this in school?

AG: I was homeschooled *laughs*. So I’ll take a third option. I think I did see this in a school setting, but I also think it’s somewhat ingrained in our culture already. Wanting to be attractive, thinking that was the most important thing. I’ve always tried to evaluate that with the people around me, too; do they make me feel a certain way about how I look, do they see me only for that, etc.

LM: I was in public schools. But lot of this book felt less like high school and more like college. Because it’s in a boarding school, I think that has a lot to do with it. And I know for a lot of southern colleges, in particular, this kind of tradition is still really important.

In terms of these horrible sexist acts, I feel like fortunately I haven’t experienced a lot of this stuff. But I know a lot of people who have.

JP: It certainly has invaded politics. You just can’t look at any news feed or open a newspaper without seeing again and again the entrenched ways in which sexism exists, over and over and over and over. Some of it is so shocking.

Let’s face it… power and money certainly seem to allow a lot of behavior to occur.

AG: That interaction is a huge part of this book. The constant disrespect for women’s capabilities at all. It’s in the teachers, too. it made me so mad.

JP: I had a professor who would call the boys by a title (Mr. So-and-so), and wouldn’t call the girls anything. He would just point.

But he was well-respected in many regards. The girls basically despised him or were sleeping with him, one or the other.

LM: Blech. That’s a whole other rabbit hole!

AG: That’s what this book is! You’re either invisible or you’re out there sexually.

LM: It was so funny the way Bax was surprised that there was another option. “Oh, I can actually talk to Jules, and I can’t do that with my guy friends.” That was interesting, because the reader is seeing him start to respect her without acknowledging it.

JP: Anyway, everyone needs to read TRADITION! It’s out now, and we’ll be hosting the author, Brendan Kiely, on April 24 with Jessie Chaffee and Katherine Howe.

AG: So many hot topics.

JP: Yay!

Tradition Cover Image
ISBN: 9781481480345
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Margaret K. McElderry Books - May 1st, 2018

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