Red Hood, Elana K. Arnold (Balzer & Bray 978-0-06-274235-3, $17.99, 368pp, hc) February 2020.
I rarely ever write this, but in this case, I simply had no choice. With Red Hood, author Elana K. Arnold has accomplished something so important and powerful that I strongly believe everyone should read this book. Girls should read it (for sure, girls should read it!), boys should read it, adults and teens should read it. If you love fairy tales, if you have no patience for them, if you think YA literature is significant or a waste of space, you should read this book. Arnold has crafted a keening cry for battle in literary form; she has sent out a charge to the universe that, if we lived in a just world, would shake foundations and shatter ceilings. You need to read this book; you need to read it right now.
First, the obvious: Red Hood is a modern retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”. After her mother’s murder in Quebec when she was very young, Bisou now lives with her grandmother in Seattle. At 16 years old, she is passably popular, mostly living a low-key teen life and very much in love with her jock boyfriend, James. It is with James that Bisou enjoys a startling night of passion that leaves her stunned and embarrassed (no sexual assault here, just a sudden arrival of her period at the worst possible moment) and sends her out of his car and into the night. While running and crying and not sure what to do (how do you face a boy, even a great boy, in that moment?), Bisou is attacked by a wolf. Filled with a hitherto unknown physical strength, she fights it off and gets home safely. And then the next day one of her more loathsome classmates is found naked and dead in the very same woods and his injuries are exactly those Bisou inflicted upon the wolf.
As she is soon reminded by her grandmother, some boys are wolves. We don’t know why or how, but some boys, some men, are certainly wolves.
As the murder is investigated and Bisou’s panic builds, so does her uncertainty about what she did and how she was able to do it. The dead boy’s girlfriend Maggie is soon raked over the gossip coals: Didn’t they fight the night she died? And isn’t she a bit of a slut? Sure, he was a jerk who wouldn’t take no for an answer, but when did she ever say no? As Maggie goes into hiding and the school’s newspaper editor starts her own determined investigation, Bisou reaches out to both girls, seeking someone who can help her understand what happened and also why she was pursued that night and what the wolf planned to do. Then there is another attack from another wolf, and Bisou is there again. This time she is not the only one to see what happens and the questions of how and why become both more and less important as the second dead boy is revealed. Does it really matter how they are stopped? Maybe, when you think about it, the story never should have been about Little Red Riding Hood visiting her grandmother, and it should have been more about why the wolf decided to kill her. Maybe it always should be about why some boys and men are wolves and why the rest of us have to patiently tolerate their actions, even their existence, at all.
So, a few trigger warnings. There are girls under threat in Red Hood, some murderous violence, discussion of the despicable “incels” through an exchange in the school newspaper and, when Bisou’s grandmother becomes involved, there is the discussion of some girls from the past who were not saved, the wolves who were not stopped. There is also the death of Bisou’s mother, graphically recalled by her daughter, which is truly horrifying. Red Hood is not for those who prefer to steer clear of such topics. (Nor for those who are not ready for forthright depictions of sex, which are also present.) But for those in search of a title that does not shy away from the realities of a girl who gets her period, who loves her boyfriend and has sweet and gentle sex with him, and who fights back against some first-class monsters, then Arnold has crafted the book you will grip to your chest with the greatest of appreciation. Is it tailor-made for the #MeToo era? Yes, and then some. More importantly, this is what fairy tales were and should be again, bloody and dark and richly compelling. Oh, hell, just go read it; everyone read Red Hood.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.
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