Book Review: Running by Natalia Sylvester
Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut makes the political personal
Reviewed by Rosalind Faires, Fri., Oct. 30, 2020
Mariana Ruiz assumes she has no power. It's not a baseless assumption. The Cuban American protagonist of Natalia Sylvester's YA debut, Running, has had her life determined by her father's political ambitions for many years, and now he's a presidential candidate in the Republican primary. She's endured media training and changing schools and sees nothing but invasions of privacy in her future, whether it's national news segments or blatant stares in high school hallways. She doesn't see how she can change anything that's happening to her.
While the circumstances of Mariana's family life are singular, her sense of helplessness and the centerpiece of the novel – a heated, mile-a-minute election cycle with a public health crisis looming over it – couldn't feel more immediate. We understand the stakes immediately and recognize the siren song of not reading the news because you're pretty sure you won't like what you see. But Running's fast pace and clear eyes keep us from wallowing too much in comparisons with the here and now – it's enough that as Mariana slowly expands her friend group and her ideas about what she might be capable of, rooting for her feels like a genuine investment in hope for our own reality.
Mariana's disillusionment with her father's policies and her environmentalist awakening come courtesy of fellow students who unexpectedly defend her in the wake of a minor scandal, and Sylvester's admiration for young activists for climate change and gun control shines throughout the novel. But Running deftly avoids the trap of "the children will save us!" thinking, which so often condescends to youth or ignores adult responsibility. The institutional power the teens in the novel run up against is huge and unwieldy and very real, and it cannot be unraveled in a day. At the same time, Sylvester lets Mariana's first steps toward using her voice feel scary and full of meaning. Both things get to be true – a single action doesn't solve a complex problem, but that doesn't diminish the profundity of the journey to that action.
So much of the best YA is about the discovery of just how huge and tangled and mysterious the world is, and Running manages to be about growing up in so many different ways. It's about the end of a childhood where you can take a grownup's assurances about how the world works for granted, about unspooling the mythos your parents have presented about themselves, about learning to really say "no" to people you love, about the work of making friends, about deciding what story you're going to tell about yourself. It's about the fact that the political can't be separated out from the personal and we'll never really understand what goes on in the heads of everyone around us, even people we love dearly. But we can reach out to them in understanding, can articulate the harm we see and reject it, can not just imagine but demand a better world. It's a joy to watch Mariana seize that power.