“Seventeen-year-old Xochi is alone in San Francisco, running from her painful past: the mother who abandoned her, the man who betrayed her. Then one day, she meets Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who lives with her rockstar family in one of the city’s storybook Victorians. Xochi accepts a position as Pallas’s live-in governess and quickly finds her place in their household, which is relaxed and happy despite the band’s larger-than-life fame.
But on the night of the Vernal Equinox, as a concert afterparty rages in the house below, Xochi and Pallas accidentally summon a pair of ancient creatures devoted to avenging the wrongs of Xochi’s adolescence. She would do anything to preserve her new life, but with the creatures determined to exact vengeance on those who’ve hurt her, no one is safe—not the family she’s chosen, nor the one she left behind.”
I gotta be honest here. I put off writing this review for weeks. Not because I disliked the book, quite the opposite, in fact. All of Us with Wings is so moving and powerful that I didn’t know how to condense my overwhelmed thoughts into something coherent. So bear with me if this is review rambles.
This is a fantasy novel, although the magical elements are secondary to Xochi’s journey. No date is given, but the setting is decidedly historical. With no tech and hipster gentrifiers, lack of cell phones, and the way queerness is expressed, I’d say it’s probably in either the late 1970s or early 1990s (HIV/AIDS isn’t a topic of conversation, so that knocks out the mid to late 1980s). And yes, thinking of the 1990s as “historical” makes this early 1980s Millennial feel very, very old. I started visiting the city regularly a few years before the tech/hipster takeover. I dearly loved that version of the city, and Keil’s depiction of that era hits my nostalgia hard.
The description at the top of this review, taken from the back of the book, really only covers the first few chapters. Once the waterbabies, as they’re called, are summoned into being, the story veers into some difficult territory. One of the reasons why I enjoy young adult fiction so much is that it affords the opportunity for teens to give voice to the choices, experiences, and feelings they’re dealing with by talking directly to them and giving them windows, mirrors, or sliding glass doors. That being said, sexual abuse isn’t a common topic, especially in YA fantasy. All the more reason Keil’s book is so important.
I won’t mince words here. When 17-year-old Xochi ends up at Pallas’ doorstep, she has survived ongoing sexual abuse from a male family member after being abandoned by her mother. She makes poor choices back home in Humboldt County and continues to make them in San Francisco. But she makes those choices because she thinks she has to, because she can’t see that there are other options out there. Xochi pursues Pallas’ father, Leviticus, and is in turn pursued by him. But Keil goes deeper than that. Leviticus isn’t an evil man preying on a young girl; he has his own set of issues that guide him down a path he knows is inappropriate and eventually force him to recognize the consequences of his behavior. And Xochi isn’t a helpless victim, nor is she “asking for it.”
To be clear, I’m not putting any responsibility on Xochi or releasing Leviticus of his responsibility. However, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve seen plenty of teens engage in behavior similar to Xochi’s, especially those abandoned by a parental figure. As an attempt to sort out their emotional, psychological, and sexual confusion, they can go looking for adult affection and find it in the worst possible ways. It’s a vicious circle: the more unsatisfied and painful that affection becomes, the more isolated they feel and the more desperate their attempts to make connections become. Without getting too personal, I wish I’d had this novel back then so I could’ve realized what I was doing before it was too late.
All of Us with Wings is a book about trauma in all its forms and the price others pay for us accepting, rejecting, or ignoring our pain. But it’s also about found families and not letting your past define your future. Every library with a young adult section should buy this book – you never know which of your teens will need it as much as I did.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.