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Deconstructing Luna

September 11, 2008

Sarah and I are reading a lot of young adult literature together. We did a simple literature study on Luna by Julie Anne Peters using some of the methods described in Deconstructing Penguins by Nancy & Lawrence Goldstone. This novel deals with issues that are sensitive to some, including a teenaged boy who is transgendered.

I have always felt that literature study should be done with a light hand. I took AP English in high school (overall, an excellent course), and I served time as a university English major. πŸ™‚ With Sarah, I am not interested in delving deeply into things like symbolism and literary Christ figures, though we will want to touch on these things at some point. I have vivid memories of classes where we were supposed to come up with a new and different answer to the question “What does the fire in The Lord of the Flies symbolize? With all the English majors and professors out there writing papers — unless you come up with an idea that is particularly inspired or wildly bizarre — I trust it’s already been done.

This is part of the reason I found Deconstructing Luna helpful, even though it’s geared toward younger children. It reminded me to keep things simple, and it offered concrete strategies to help me get started.

So onto Luna. I think it is a good book for adolescent readers, especially those who — like Sarah — are interested in sexuality and gender identity issues. It does deal with mature themes, and it uses strong language.

The story is told from the point of view of an adolescent girl, Regan O’Neill. Her older brother, Liam,is a transgendered teen, and Regan is the only one who knows his secret. At night he becomes Luna,his female persona, his “true self.” He uses Regan’s room at night to dress in women’s clothes. During the day, he dresses in “boy role” and goes through his “normal” life. Feeling disconnected from himself and trapped in the wrong body, Liam becomes increasingly depressed.

Together, Liam and Regan keep Luna a secret from their parents. This is complicated by the fact that their dad has very traditional ideas about gender roles. He does not like his wife working outside the home, even though the family desperately needs the money. And he is anxious for Liam to be a typical “guy” and pushes him to play sports.

Meanwhile their mom, who has fought to carve out an identity for herself apart from her role as wife and mother, works as a wedding planner. At the same time, she has become increasingly angry and self-absorbed. One of the things I admire about this book is that it isn’t a trite story about a mom trying to liberate herself from obnoxious, chauvinistic husband. The characters are more complex than that. Even though I didn’t like some of the dad’s attitudes toward his wife and kids, and toward gender roles, I found myself identifying with him. I saw him trying to hold the family together as his wife, who also has a substance abuse problem, drifts away.

Meanwhile, Regan finds the task of protecting her brother/sister’s secret a heavy burden. When she is in about sixth grade, Regan’s peers start noticing something “weird” about Liam. She pulls away from them, living with few friends and struggling to begin dating a boy she really likes. She laments that she has become invisible — living through Liam — without a life of her own.

At breakfast, Sarah and I talked about protagonist/antagonist, conflict and themes. Our first task was to identify the protagonist and antagonist.

Contrary to popular belief, the protagonist is not necessarily the hero. We talked about this a bit. The protagonist is basically the person whose striving or struggles — the thing he is trying to accomplish — form the central conflict of the story. The antagonist tries to hold him back in what he’s trying to do.

After I presented this Sarah, Marie used The Lord of the Rings as an example. Frodo, the protagonist tries to destroy the Ring of Power, and Sauron (antagonist) tries to stop him. Of course, LOTR is a lot more complicated than that, but if you boil it down to its most basic elements — that’s the story.

Who are the protagonist and antagonist in Luna? There is no epic quest and no clear good and evil. It’s about real life, which is messy.

Sarah considered the following theories and we made a simple chart.

Liam is protagonist?What does Liam want to accomplish? Transitioning from male to female (a process that will culminate in sexual reassignment surgery)What qualities does he have? 

  • brave
  • fashion conscious πŸ™‚
  • phenomenally smart
  • sensitive
  • effeminate
  • clever
  • independent
  • does things his own way
  • knows what he wants and will do anything to achieve it
  • sometimes seems self-obsessed, more concerned about his struggles and his male-to-female transition than in how his actions affect Regan.
So who is antagonist? Who is trying to hold Liam back from achieving his goal (transitioning)? 

  1. Hoyt Doucet? (a bully who called Liam a “fag” and a “pervert,” even before Liam outed himself as a transgendered individual) What qualities does Hoyt have? Sarah described him as an “asshole” and “really mean to Liam.” That about sums it up. Hoyt is basically a one-dimensional character who is not really integral to the story.
    We crossed him off the list of suspects.
  2. Liam’s mom? Sarah described her this way:
    • self centered,
    • screechy
    • neurotic
    • whiny
    • detached
    • does nothing but talk to “Handy Andy”
      (her business partner)
    • Leaves Liam at the mercy of his dad’s “butch beating”

    Is Mom holding Liam back from transitioning and finding acceptance for who he really is? Regan eventually realizes that Mom has always known his “secret” on some level, and she has held fast to her denial. In this way, according to Sarah, she “left Liam in the Atlantic without a life boat” when he really needed her support.

  3. Liam’s Dad? Sarah described him as “macho mucho,” having stereotypical views of gender. He can be seen as holding Liam back from transitioning through his gender role expectations. He definitely wants Liam to be “all boy.” And while any parent might have difficulty with such a revelation, this makes it particularly difficult to approach him with the truth.
  4. Regan? Is she holding Liam back, even as she is trying to love and support him, by being terribly afraid of what people will think when he transitions? Even though she sees how depressed he is in “boy role,” empathizes with and supports him, and feels burdened by the secret, she urges him NOT to tell others. According to Sarah, “Sometimes she is really mean. The idea of his having a sex change really freaks her out, and she worries a lot about how it will affect her.”
Is Regan the protagonist?
What does she want to accomplish? To live her own life.

What qualities does she have? 

  • giving, always does what others want her to do
  • has trouble setting limits for herself
  • smart “in a different way” from Liam
  • musical
  • shy
  • not as brave as Liam
  • doesn’t know what she really wants
  • sometimes seems self-obsessed because she is more worried about how Liam’s transitioning affects her rather than about his struggles.
If Regan is protagonist, is Liam the antagonist? He holds Regan back from being free to live her own life, though not intentionally, by “having her keep a huge secret and having her help him transition.”

So maybe Liam is the protagonist and ironically, his closest supporter — and the only person who knows Luna, Liam’s real self — is the antagonist. It seems equally possible that Regan, struggling for her own identity and her own life, is the protagonist and Liam, whose needs seem to be holding her hostage, is the antagonist. This is highlighted by the fact that
brother and sister can be seen as having opposite qualities. For example, Regan seems, unlike Liam, not to know what she wants, and she can be seen as less courageous and more conventional. They love each other, and readers can easily
empathize with both of them; this highlights the fact that the antagonist and protagonist are not necessarily “bad guy” and “good guy,” nor are they necessarily enemies.

Sarah and I suspect that both these scenarios are true. Can Liam really transition as long is he is close to his sister? And can Regan ever find her own identity, and live her own life, as long as she is close to Liam? I guess the ending of the book is really inevitable.

We also still think Liam vs. Mom & Dad are viable contenders for the antagonist & protagonist/central conflict slot. We agreed that a book does not necessarily have ONE antagonist & protagonist and conflict. In this case, these literary elements are multi-dimensional.

When I was in school, we were sometimes given worksheets on literature with blans to fill in things like “plot,” “conflict” and “theme.” We assumed we’d be graded on whether we worked out the”right” answers. I see these things less as questions to be answered as a process of discussion about the book. I don’t really care whether we figure out the “right” answer or whether we come to a conclusion at all. The act of exploring these questions — that’s the thing.

Finally we talked about theme. What is the theme of Luna?

1. Gender Identity — This theme is made explicit in many ways. Sarah pointed out — and I think this is an apt observation — that these things are often less subtle in YA literature. Mom struggles with her husband’s role expectations for her, as wife. Liam struggles with gender expectations on several levels. Regan ponders the role of gender expectations in our lives and how they limit us.

2. The Individual vs. Family & Society — Liam struggles to establish his (her) identity in the face of family and societal expectations. Regan struggles with this on many levels. In addition to the burden of being her brother’s entire support system, she deals with the fact that teachers have certain expectations because of her ultra-brilliant older brother. She
and Liam even share the same best friend. Mom struggles to establish an identity separate from her family.

I told Sarah I thought a book’s theme was a bit like light shining on a piece of quartz. If you see the same ideas, or the same struggles, reflected in the story in many different ways, chances are it’s a central theme.

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