Review: The Red Road by Jenni Wiltz

red-roadI posted a spotlight on this book a few weeks ago and finally had a chance to read it, so I wanted to share my thoughts. Just to recap:

What it’s about:

Honor student Emma knows more about galvanic cell diagrams than guns. College is the only way out of her gang-ridden hometown, but her parents can’t afford it.

When her unemployed dad lands a job as a census taker, things start looking up. But he’s sent deep into East Malo Verde, where gang members rule the streets and fear anyone with a badge who knocks on doors. One night, a gang member mistakes him for a cop and beats him savagely, leaving him for dead.

Her best friends, her chem lab partner, her mom, and the detective assigned to the case all try to convince her to focus on school. But school won’t prepare her for a world that ignores a crime against a good man. Emma must decide what’s more important: doing what’s expected, or doing what she feels is right . . . even if it leads her down a dark and dangerous path of revenge.

What I thought:

First of all, The Red Road is a book that is immediately accessible. The character of Emma is recognizable. She’s the girl who is always trying to do the right thing, to be the good girl even in a difficult situation. She’s the girl who still buys into the idea that if she just keeps her head down and her nose clean, she’ll get what she wants. She’s Veronica Mars before Lily dies, minus the easy popularity and the stunning good looks.*

When a crime is committed against her father and nobody seems able or willing to do anything about it, Emma becomes obsessed with making things right. She becomes more negative and outspoken, which turns off her so-called friends. She starts looking for answers in dangerous places, getting in fights, and skipping class. She challenges her friends, her parents, and even the detective assigned to the case.

I think part of the reason that Emma becomes so preoccupied with the crime is that she feels somehow responsible. Her father gave up his job in order for her to stay at her high school and in their town, which leads to him being in the wrong neighborhood. It’s as if Emma thinks that by solving her father’s problems she can repay him for his sacrifice. She seems oblivious to the fact that she is only a young girl in a situation that is way, way over her head–one which even the police won’t touch.

I felt bad for Emma because I could see her consistently making the wrong choices (even if they were for the right reasons) and yet there is nothing that will make her turn back from her course. Even the potential for happiness with a new boyfriend is easily given up for the larger purpose of avenging her father. All of the things that once seemed so important to her are subsumed by her need for justice.

Even though it seems inevitable, the ending of the book is hard to read and harder to accept. The fact that not a single adult in the book has a real, forthright conversation with Emma about what she is going through is so sad to me. Her parents just seem to be sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling “la la la la, I can’t hear you!” while the teachers at her school don’t react to the fact that she is skipping classes and acting differently. No one intervenes, which drives Emma to the point where she takes extreme action.

The Red Road is a good read and I definitely enjoyed it, even if the characters are frustrating and oblivious most of the time. It is a more authentic portrayal of a teenager than is usually found in YA fiction, as Emma is portrayed as both still young and vulnerable and seriously lacking in judgement. Recommended.

*For those who haven’t watched the tv show Veronica Mars, it was the most obvious parallel that came to mind when reading this book.


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