Michelle Ruiz Keil’s young adult historical fantasy novel All of Us With Wings is a challenging book to review. Full of difficult but important themes and topics, it embraces discomfort and pushes the reader to look deeper. This is a heartrending story about grief and recovery, abuse and survival, independence and found family. It may not be something everyone is ready to read, but for those who need it, the book will feel like catharsis.
Seventeen-year-old Xochi arrives in the grungy, anything goes San Francisco of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Alone and adrift, she wanders the street in search of a way to make the pain go away. Instead she finds Pallas, the precocious 12 year-old daughter of a wild family of queer musicians. Now with a roof over her head and a job as a governess to keep her occupied, Xochi finally has a chance to breathe.
But her history lurks in the shadows of this new life, not just metaphorically but literally. After one reckless, raucous night, Pallas and Xochi summon two magical creatures called Waterbabies, and they declare themselves Xochi’s protectors. Anyone who hurts her is subject to their wrath, and that includes people from her past and present. As much as Xochi wants to shed her previous persona, she cannot move forward until she faces what has followed her to the city.
Poetry and interludes from the perspective of a hyper-aware neighborhood cat are interspersed in the narrative, giving the story a heightened, theatrical feel that floats somewhere between magical realism and fantasy. Keil jumps perspectives frequently, but keeps the story flowing smoothly. With effortlessly impressive prose and a cast of fully realized characters, Keil crafts an engaging story of a young woman coming into her own
Xochi’s pain is burned into her soul, but she hides her secrets from her new friends. She tries to drown her past, but the Waterbabies dredge it all back up again. Because her unreliable mother abandoned her, Xochi has learned to sabotage her relationships, hurting others before they hurt her. And because the man her mother ditched her with manipulated and sexually abused her, Xochi cannot comprehend what a healthy relationship with a father figure looks like. So when Leviticus, Pallas’ attractive father, enters Xochi’s life, her feelings of parental longing get tangled up with sexual confusion.
Although he is only a few years older than her, he finds himself drawn to her for reasons he doesn’t yet understand. They shouldn’t. They can’t. They want to. But it’s not so simple as “older man takes advantage of a confused teenage girl” or “sexually charged teenage girl seduces an older man.” For many young women, this uncomfortable but familiar territory. Teens trying to fill the void left by being abandoned and/or harmed by their parents can lead them to make regrettable decisions about their body and who gets access to it. It can make it hard to discern between appropriate and inappropriate interactions with adults. And it can make it nearly impossible to see a way out of the encroaching darkness.
Keil doesn’t shy away from the realities of Xochi and Leviticus’ relationship. He pursues her and she pursues him (as much as a teen girl can pursue an adult man). In age she’s still a child, but by past experiences she thinks she is a world-weary adult. In truth she’s neither; she’s an adolescent caught between the past, present, and future and unequipped to understand any of it. She makes bad choices while living with her abuser in Humboldt County and makes even more bad choices while living with Leviticus in San Francisco. But Keil makes it clear that her actions don’t mean she deserves what happens to her or that she’s “asking for it.”
With Leviticus, Keil tries to explain but not excuse his interest in Xochi. For the most part she succeeds. He’s had his own share of familial pain that has thrown his sense of right and wrong out whack just like Xochi. Where Keil stumbles is the end. I won’t spoil the events, but suffice it to say Leviticus does not get as much comeuppance as I would like. I don’t want him to suffer – after all, he’s not a villain, just a troubled twenty-something – but Keil lets him off too easily. I’m not convinced he fully understands why going after Xochi was so awful and how his actions will affect her relationships with others in the future.
With its fraught and intimate subject matter, the lines between necessary and problematic get blurred. Some readers will find the content in All of Us with Wings triggering or emotionally painful, while others will find relief in seeing those same hard topics depicted with nuance. If ever there was a Your Mileage May Vary book, Michelle Ruiz Keil’s debut is it. But I hope that won’t stop you from at least giving this powerful novel a try.
All of Us With Wings is now available in paperback from Soho Teen.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.