Monday, April 25, 2011

Dutton faces the risks of being 'Stranded'

Originally printed June 21, 2010.

"In Iowa City, there are Authors and there are authors," novelist J.T. Dutton wrote in a 2008 guest opinion for the Press-Citizen. "I mostly pass for the small 'a' kind, the kind you don't cross the street to ask an autograph of."

And Dutton should know. She lived in Iowa City from 2001 to 2008 while her husband earned his Ph.D. in the English department at the University of Iowa.

After arriving in town already armed with an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dutton had to settle for writing only in the small amount of free time she found between teaching at Kirkwood Community College and parenting two small children.

As her husband was finishing his dissertation, however, Dutton decided to be more aggressive in trying to find someone willing to publish a revised version of her MFA thesis. After some initial disappointments, she eventually found an agent who suggested that her manuscript -- which featured a teenage deadhead narrator -- might be better suited for the young adult market.

After additional revisions that led her into some unexpected new directions, Dutton published her debut novel, "Freaked," with HarperTeen in 2009.

Dutton and her family have moved on to Ohio, but it was her time in Iowa that provided the inspiration for her recently released second novel, "Stranded" (also with HarperTeen). While spending many hours driving on the Highway of the Saints and other byways across the state, Dutton became fascinated with a landscape covered with fields and dotted with anti-abortion billboards.

That's when she got the idea of telling the story of a baby who was abandoned and left to die in one of those fields -- a baby that the surrounding community comes to call "Baby Grace."

As Dutton honed the plot, she not only needed to invent a small town (Heaven, Iowa) and an otherwise straight-laced teenage mother (Natalie Sorenson), but she also had to find an outsider to narrate the story. She eventually came up with Kelly Louise Sorenson, Natalie's cousin from Des Moines, who has to move back to Heaven to live with her grandmother and Natalie because of the Baby Grace incident.

As the town's name suggests, religious themes and symbolism are abundant in "Stranded." If you were to pitch the novel as a movie, in fact, you'd probably say, "It's 'Juno' meets 'Saved.'" But in "Stranded," the hyper-religious, small-town teenager (who seems straight out of "Saved") has her baby and leaves it to die. And the secular, amoral teenager (who seems straight out "Juno") not only provides the novel's comic relief but also serves as its moral touchstone.

"I preferred my conversations with (my Des Moines friends)," Kelly Louise says when her mother chastises her for some mild misbehaviors while helping to cover up Natalie's tragic mistake. "They were much more sane and inane."

Kelly Louise's constant wit and confusion helps Dutton undercut her storyline's potential for melodrama. Not only is Kelly Louise named after Tina Louise, the actress who played Ginger on "Gilligan's Island," but Dutton also has endowed her with observational commentary as sharp and dark as anything the screenwriters could provide for high schooler Buffy Summers in TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"When we reached the door and the sun streamed in, my eyeballs just about fell out," Kelly Louise observes while trying to navigate Heaven High School. "I wondered if my sunglasses had enough UV protection to help me deal with all the shining judgment. My guess was likely not."

And after losing her own virginity to one of the town's bad boy characters, the narrator accurately observes, "He and I were both in the same seminaked state, partners in our universal insignificance to God, who had dropped the ball in letting a tragedy like Baby Grace take place."

Dutton clearly is taking a big risk by writing a young adult novel that deals unabashedly with issues such as teen pregnancy, infanticide, religion, homosexuality and the underside of small-town values. But she also has read enough authors -- of both the capital "A" and small "a" varieties -- to know that good stories don't reinforce boundaries; they break through them.

"The publishing industry has been often blamed for putting dollar bills ahead of aestheticism," Dutton wrote in her 2008 column, "but I discovered some of the books that are getting published for teens are groundbreaking and complex. True, some indulge in happy endings, gossiping girls, traveling pants, boys with attractive smiles and double lives as vampires, but others are by writers who have crossed from the adult trade into the youth market in order to produce material that is bound to influence and be echoed in prose to come."

"Stranded" definitely belongs in the latter category.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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