book cover imageBeneath Wandering Stars
by Ashlee Cowles.
Merit Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $18.

In today’s publishing landscape, Ashlee Cowles’s Beneath Wandering Stars is a rare contemporary Young Adult novel. It is worth our attention and promotion because it should not be so rare at all.

Recently the majority of popular Young Adult fiction seems to fall into two extremes: pure escapism or bleak “realism.” These are distinct on their faces, but strikingly similar in how they absorb readers’ attention.

Escapist stories feature protagonists who embark on a journey to achieve exactly what they want. They may be challenged along the way, but they do not grow. Their personal actions, choices, and judgments of others are always ultimately vindicated. Characters may be put-upon when their stories begin, but never by their own doing and only so they can rise higher by the end.

Bleak “realist” stories feature protagonists who are defined, rather than detailed, by the tragedy and misery they face. Sometimes, through much struggle, characters overcome their pain. Sometimes they succumb, or respond with violence.

At their best, these books can entertain and educate readers. But at their worst, they draw readers in by the same flaws. Both styles can present their protagonists as the unquestioned axis of their universe. They can address complex issues through simplistic characters and dilemmas. They can portray a love interest as the perfect and only assuagement to protagonist woes. In other words, both escapist and realist variants of YA fiction simply reflect the overwhelming emotions many young readers already feel. They do not offer readers new perspectives, challenges, or hope. They simply let their readers wallow in their own concern, expressed through fictional universes.

Cowles’s Beneath Wandering Stars strikes a balance between the extremes. A YA novel at its best should connect readers with something they can identify, but also invite them to engage with something unknown, and to present nuance to that engagement.

The novel presents Gabi, a seventeen-year-old military brat who is tired of living with her family on their base in Germany. She looks forward to graduating, so she can leave for Texas, where she will join her current boyfriend and the restof her old friends for college.

Then a routine day on the base is shattered by the news that her older brother has been seriously injured in Afghanistan. With his survival in question, crisis upends Gabi’s and her family’s lives, bringing old resentments to the surface and launching Gabi in an unexpected direction. Skeptically, per her brother’s request, she sets out with his best friend, Seth, to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The long walk, and the fellow pilgrims she meets along the way, change her in ways she does not expect.

Beneath Wandering Stars will open new worlds for many readers. Gabi and Seth’s journey is vivid with sensory detail and engaging characters. Readers feel what Gabi feels, and suffer and enjoy all the foibles and beauty of a multi-week hike through beautiful country. The fellow travelers are deeply interesting and varied. The romance that eventually grows between Gabi and Seth is tough, humorous, thoughtful, and exists in a sensible context. None of this is pure escapism per se, but it achieves what a strong book should do, and wholly transports the reader somewhere they may not have been.

But the novel also does not shy away from harsh realities, nor does it elide mundane ones. Gabi has serious flaws, emotional issues, and conflict with the people she loves. A number of major tragedies and struggles are confronted, but not overplayed. There is also plenty of attention to detail about the daily life of U.S. military families, which Cowles draws from experience, as well as the unique quirks and fears that come with it. Readers can identify and still learn.

Overall, Beneath Wandering Stars lets readers experience the unusual and the everyday in ways that are compelling and constructive. It acknowledges that readers may feel as Gabi does, but also recognizes a need for change and growth. It ultimately broadens and deepens readers’ worldviews by intelligently engaging their attention and adds a perspective needed in this area of fiction.  

Katherine Khorey writes, teaches, works, and studies in Chicago, IL. She is a graduate of the University of Manchester (UK) and the University of Notre Dame, and a future graduate of Northwestern University. Katherine was a Wilbur Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center in 2011. While she specializes in fiction, she maintains a strong interest in the power of stories of all kinds, told over all media.