So let’s start this thing off a little lighthearted, at least, by discussing this cover. I have a confession to make. I never read this one as a kid. A few years after its release, I heard that there had been an SVH book about gay teenagers. I didn’t know which one it was, but my mind automatically flipped to this cover. For years, I assumed that Friend Against Friend was about the two cover boys finding out they really love one another and searching for acceptance from their friends. I’m 100 percent not making this up. Only in the past couple of years did I read that this was a book about racism and that it’s another SVH book that covers acceptance of gay teenagers. So, yeah!
The super dark blue cover of this book seems appropriate for the seriousness of this tale. I had to take some time after I read it to sort my feelings out and decide what I wanted to say. I’m going to do something similar to my post about Regina Morrow in On the Edge. I’ll tell you what happens and then tell you what I liked and didn’t like about this story.
Neil Freemount, whom we last heard anything major about in Secret Admirer, is the kid on the left. His best friend, Andy Jenkins, is on the right. (Oh, before we go any further, that scene? Didn’t happen. Not really. You’ll see.) Neil and Andy have bonded over their lab partnership in marine bio class. Andy is a science whiz, plays the French horn in the school band, and he also is a member of a new rock band called Baja Beat, which we hear almost nothing about, including who the other members are, what songs they play, or which clubs you can find them at. As for Neil, he doesn’t really do much of anything except complain inwardly to himself about shit. Neil and Andy often double date with their respective girlfriends, senior Penny Ayala (editor-in-chief of the Oracle) and junior Tracy Gilbert (Patty’s cousin). Neil’s dad works for Patman Canning along with that boozer Charlie Cashman’s dad. We haven’t really heard much from Charlie since the earlier books when he and Jim Sturbridge were famous for double-teaming Betsy Martin at Miller’s Point.
Neil doesn’t like Charlie and is not pleased when his parents have the Cashmans over for a backyard barbecue. Thankfully, Charlie is unable to attend. At the barbecue, Neil is stunned to hear Mr. Cashman bitch about how he thinks the new foreman, Mr. Willis, was given the position because he’s black. Mr. Cashman makes a comment about South Americans and a few statements about black people thinking “they” are better than everyone else and expecting handouts all the time. Neil is even more shocked when his own dad seems to agree with him. Mrs. Freemount is angered and reacts sharply to the statements as does Neil, whereas Mrs. Cashman is a timid little shrew.
Around the same time, Andy starts getting harassed for his race. First his locker is filled with gross cafeteria trash, and “Go back to Africa where you belong” is written on the inside of the door. (How did the person get into his locker?) Neil is horrified, but Andy just shrugs it off and declines to tell Principal “Chrome Dome” Cooper as Neil suggests. (Neil later suspects Charlie of being the perpetrator.) But things just start getting worse. After Andy wins a spot in a special marine bio summer program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Neil fears Charlie will target him for more harassment … and he’s right. When Neil and Andy double date with Penny and Tracy at the Dairi Burger, Charlie and his friends surround Andy in the parking lot, and only back off after Neil asks them to. But then Tracy comes outside and finds that they have slashed all four of her tires. Andy is really upset, of course, but still doesn’t want to let the school (or Tracy!) know what’s gong on. Neil tries to help by saying the following: “Think – think of how Martin Luther King, Jr. would react to a situation like this-”
Awk-ward. Andy doesn’t react favorably to that at all; in fact, he even tells Neil he doesn’t need help from “any white person.” Yikes! Next, Charlie randomly shows up at Neil’s house, upset about something, and asks him to take a ride around town. And stupid Neil goes with him! Here’s Charlie’s idea of a good time: laying on the horn in front of Principal Cooper’s house for a good 30 seconds and then speeding away laughing. Fun times. Neil finds himself feeling bad for Charlie because he’s sure Charlie’s dad must be taking his work problems out on his son. Cry me a fucking river. Neil also fails to take advantage of a perfect situation to talk to Charlie about Andy. Not that you can magically turn a racist into a non-racist, but this is an utter failure to stand up for a friend.
Charlie sees Neil talking to Andy at school, and he and his friends make comments about Neil’s “black buddy”, upsetting Andy again, who demands to know why Neil is friends with Charlie now. They have a miniature tiff after Andy gives Neil an ultimatum: Charlie or him. Neil already knows he was an idiot to go out with Charlie, but he doesn’t like being confronted about it, so he tells Andy he’ll be friends with him if he wants and Andy just shrugs and walks away. Somewhere around this point, we learn that Mr. Willis fired Mr. Cashman. Neil’s dad automatically assumes this was a show of power by Mr. Willis because he is black, or something like that, whereas Mrs. Freemount and Neil think it’s because Mr. Cashman is an asshole who didn’t want to work under a black man. In response to this mess, Charlie escalates his harassment of Andy to a violent level. Charlie trips Andy in the hallway and stomps on his books, and Andy tackles him in response. Mr. Collins breaks up the fight and sends Charlie to the office, then asks Neil what’s going on. Neil doesn’t want to say anything, but Mr. Collins gathers that Charlie is picking on Andy for being black. Yet he seems to have the attitude that he can’t help if Neil won’t explain what’s going on.
Neil and Penny see a movie at the Valley Mall movie theater. On the way out, they spy Charlie and his cronies rocking Andy’s car back and forth, then they somehow get the car door open and pull him out and jump him. Penny runs off to get help while Neil runs over to stop them. But then Charlie reminds Neil how Andy has been treating him, and offers Neil a chance to punch the unconscious Andy. And Neil does it! Holy fuck! What the hell is wrong with him? Oh, he “realized with horror what he was doing” and attempted to stop the punch, but his fist still connects with Andy’s solar plexus. Just then the police show up, and Charlie and his friends scatter while Neil gets all the credit for stopping the fight. I’m going to throw up.
Everyone praises Neil for saving Andy while he lives in fear that Charlie will let his secret out. Neil goes to see Andy at his house, where he’s in bed recovering from his injuries. Neil thinks to himself that he will tell Andy that he hit him, but Andy is so grateful to see him and ready to repair their friendship that Neil doesn’t do it. Andy apologizes for avoiding Neil and his “white person” comment, and he wants to start their friendship over with no “black-white crap”. Then Mr. Freemount takes Neil to a USC basketball game where he tells his son he knows the truth (I guess from Mr. Cashman?) and PRAISES him for doing it, because it wasn’t right for Andy to treat Neil the way he did, and “[Andy] had it coming”. Neil realizes he’s never going to see his father the same way ever again.
At school, Andy gets a standing ovation from everyone at a special assembly where he (and others) receive the science awards. Then Charlie reminds Neil that he hit Andy, too. (That reminds me: no one will come out and say who beat on Andy! Andy knows and Neil knows but neither of them will say.) Charlie thinks Andy needs to be taught a lesson (for being black) and wants Neil to help him jump him again. If Neil refuses, Charlie will tell everyone that Neil is not the great hero they think he is. Neil finally gets his guts together and tells Andy the truth, right in front of Penny. Penny is horrified and walks away and Andy pretty much ends their friendship for good and also walks away. Neil goes out to the parking lot to sit in his car and think. And who does do-gooder Liz decide to go help following this scene? NEIL. Aw, poor Neil, he’s having the roughest time of all, huh Liz? Kill me.
The book ends with the following: Neil drives by the football field where he sees Charlie’s gang approaching Andy, who’s walking out there by himself. Neil drives over and stands with his former friend, ready to defend him. Charlie and crew leave and Andy tells him this changes nothing. Neil says he knows but that he will always stand in his defense anyway. They part ways and I guess that’s the last we will hear of Andy, and probably of prejudice against African Americans, ever again in this series. Then finally, Penny decides she might be somewhat responsible for the fact that Neil hit Andy. What, are you fucking kidding me?! She calls Neil up and says she’s ready to try again, or some bullshit. Elizabeth stands by silently nodding and approving. Why isn’t Liz trying to talk to Andy?! Isn’t he the one who really needs someone to talk to? I hate her.
The sub-plot is all about how the Wakefield twins react to racism, right here in otherwise sunny Sweet Valley! First, in the beginning of the book, Liz decides to ask people to write to the Oracle about things they would change about Sweet Valley High. Her prissy ass expects everyone to put things like “better cafeteria food”, shorter school days, etc. Instead, someone writes in with this gem: “I think they should kick out anyone from this school who isn’t a real American. Like blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. They always get advantages over us.” (Penny reads that one and is appalled.) The new Oracle project also sparks a couple of heated discussions at the lunch table. These are probably the most serious conversations anyone in these books has had for a long time. Manuel Lopez says he doesn’t like how the school skips over the part of history in which Mexicans settled Southern California and Sandra Bacon is surprised because she didn’t know that they did (proving his point). Other people don’t like the Pi Beta Alpha sorority because they’re a bunch of snobs who get to exclude people they don’t like yet get special privileges. And after Penny reads a submission from someone who thinks girls should be allowed to play football, the girls and guys spar over whether girls’ sports get as much attention as guys’ sports and whether they should. (Aaron gets offended when Dana calls boys’ sports “primitive macho competitions.” Dana! Didn’t you learn anything from watching your man play soccer in the last book? I thought that was your great revelation! :)) Elizabeth seems disturbed by all the arguments. She and Penny also talk about how they are shocked, shocked I tell you, that racism could happen in little old Sweet Valley. Penny in particular only thought racist people existed in big cities. Oh, kids. I’m sorry to say you got a lot to learn. 😦 Then Liz tries to ask Jessica some vague questions about privilege and prejudice, only to find that Jessica thinks it’s just natural that rich, good-looking people like Bruce Patman get all the benefits over everyone else. (Shouldn’t Jessica be including the Wakefield family in that equation? She seems to think she isn’t a member of the “privileged” set because her family doesn’t live in a mansion … well I got news for you woman.) So then Liz shares Andy’s harassment with Jess and Jessica is horrified but thinks that Andy should just ignore him and it will go away. That seems to be the predominant attitude of most people in this book (to this point – this discussion happens prior to Andy’s getting jumped), including Andy.
It takes Andy’s getting seriously hurt to wake everyone up a bit. Jessica circulates a petition at school for people to sign in order to form a united front against racism and behind Andy. I think that might have about as much effect as one of those online petitions people randomly create, but whatever. Elizabeth runs an editorial about the incident in the Oracle, and then the sociology teacher, Ms. Jacobi, does an exercise with her class about prejudice. The class is divided into Light-eyes and Dark-eyes, and since the Light-eyes are the minority, the Dark-eyes are allowed to treat them like crap and demand special privileges from them. Jessica and Amy are forbidden to speak. Amy has to give up her seat to Cara and Jessica is forced to pick up Maria’s books after Maria claims Jessica knocked them over (which she didn’t). Kirk Anderson makes Ken sharpen his pencil. Jessica is enraged and decides to try to do more to stop prejudice but I don’t think we really see what she does. Following the end of class, Ms. Jacobi leads the class in a five-minute discussion about what they did. Winston admits he kind of liked the power he was given while the Light-Eyes talk about how awful they felt. Oh, and if you recognize the exercise in question – that’s because it’s a famous one. We learned about it in 8th grade government class (but didn’t replicate it ourselves). You can learn more about it at this Smithsonian magazine article or at this PBS info page.
So here’s my own white girl perspective, as promised. Make no mistake, obviously I don’t know everything and I won’t claim to. But I do try not to walk around with my head jammed in the sand, pretending that just because something doesn’t affect me personally that it doesn’t exist or that I shouldn’t try to learn more about it.
First of all, I AM glad for a few things. Okay, so we got to see several kinds of racism/racists. There are people who are violently and outspokenly racist like Charlie, the ones who are easy to spot. Then there are people like Mr. Cashman and Mr. Freemount, who are much more subtle and think “some of them are okay” or who make jokes about Mexicans: people who honestly believe that statements like that are okay and protest that they are not racist, people who will only make such statements when they think they are in like-minded company. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered like this myself, who think I will agree with them just because I also happen to be white. When I tell them I don’t agree with them and why, they get offended and act like I’M the jackass. So whomever wrote this book does deserve points for showing that racism is not always glaringly obvious to the whole world, because there are many who, like Penny and Liz, think that it doesn’t exist in their town just because it’s not in their faces. It’s true that Penny and Liz are only teenagers, so I’m willing to cut them a little slack – but not much, especially not Liz, since she professes to be such a know-it-all!
I’m also glad not everything ended perfectly for Neil in the end (more on him in a bit). He acted like a jerk again and again, and he deserved to lose his friends if you ask me. It’s perfectly understandable that Andy doesn’t want to be his friend anymore. I was truly expecting the ghostwriter to have Andy make up with Neil, just because that’s usually the way things end in these books. I could see the two of them skipping off to the Dairi Burger in the sunset. But that didn’t happen. So, in some respects, there were consequences to Neil’s actions.
So what didn’t I like? Oh man, where do I start?
I am iffy about this scene: Andy and Tracy get invited to sit with the rest of the gang at lunchtime. Liz thinks to herself how everyone likes Andy, not because he’s black, but because he is a good guy; she recognizes that if everyone tried to treat Andy extra special because he’s black, then that would just as bad. Okay, so I think that’s an important thing to touch on. You don’t have to pat yourself on the back and say “I have black friends!” You just need to look at people by their character, not by the color of their skin. I’m iffy about it because I still feel like the sentiment rings false in a series where we hardly ever hear about any minority characters unless they are going to be part of some minority-focused story (more on that later).
Neil is a wuss, just like in Secret Admirer, yet we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. He can’t stand up to people until major damage has already been done. Previously, he couldn’t stand up to Kirk Anderson and friends until Penny had already been terribly hurt. And here, he couldn’t stand up to Mr. Cashman, his dad, or to Charlie and his ass friends until Andy had already been severely beaten. He couldn’t ask Charlie what his fucking deal was when he had the chance, failing again and again to take a really firm stand. He couldn’t even bring himself to just tell Mr. Collins or any other adults the truth when asked. And when offered a chance to hit Andy, he took it! It doesn’t matter that he “tried” to stop himself from punching Andy at the last possible nanosecond, because violence was still his initial reaction. He makes horrible decisions and then makes excuses for himself, or worse, acts first then thinks later, time and time again. So did he really learn his lesson? Who knows, he’s a character in a book. But I’m really disgusted with him. His actions and thoughts do not do anything to solve the problems, in fact, they just exacerbate it. Despite all of this, we have Liz and Penny making excuses for him. Penny even (briefly) wonders if maybe she helped contribute to the problem by not being there and decides she’ll try to forgive him in the end. But she was there, trying to get him to talk about it and calling him all the time. Not only that, she is not responsible for Neil’s actions, Neil is. He made his choices and ran away from his feelings time and time again without trying to do anything productive about him. He’s responsible for that. Just the way Charlie is responsible for his own actions, not his old man. Yet I feel like the ghostwriter wants us to sympathize with Neil more than Andy. Stupid Liz sure does. Not once do we get Andy’s point of view that’s happening. Which brings me to another point …
I feel like none of the adults in this book really wanted to help until Andy was seriously hurt. I know, I know, none of the kids wanted to spill the beans about Charlie, especially since Andy didn’t want them to. But couldn’t they have done a little more pushing to find out who was responsible? It was like their attitude was, “Huh, no one knows who did it … okay. Let’s give Andy a standing ovation for surviving the attack!” and then moved on. (And aren’t there security cameras at the mall?)
If you want readers to understand what discrimination might feel like, in some small way, why not offer us Andy’s point of view? Why not show us how Andy feels and juxtapose those feelings with Neil’s? Instead, we get Neil’s feeling sorry for himself throughout the entire book (when we’re not hearing about how Liz and Penny feel). And we get to read about poor Jessica and Amy and Ken getting treated like “second-class citizens” for a whopping fifty minutes. They’re about to cry because they don’t get to choose their own seats or giggle about boys back and forth, and they are outraged because the usual unbelievable life of privilege they have is suddenly reduced by a smidgen for that brief amount of time. They aren’t getting beaten up in the hallway or spat on when they walk by (and I’m not saying they should, so don’t freak out on me). They aren’t afraid to go to certain areas for fear someone will kick their asses just for having light eyes. Yet Jessica thinks: “This is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to be discriminated against.” Now, is it a bad thing that they did this exercise? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But I think it is sad that it took this exercise to get them raring to go to take any real action, and even then, we don’t see where they did. And I have to wonder if this exercise made Jessica and Amy think a little harder about the shitty way they treat other people. Did Jessica suddenly feel bad about all the things she did to people she didn’t consider as good-looking and high-class as herself – people like Annie Whitman and Robin Wilson? Somehow, I doubt it.
And finally, you know what I really don’t like about this book? That a brand new black character had to be made up solely for a book about racism. That’s sad to me. They had to pull a brand new character out to showcase racism, because, as far as I can recall, there has never been a black male character in this entire series. And will we ever hear about Andy again after this? Probably not. Oh, maybe in passing here and there, but otherwise I can pretty much bet he will disappear. And that sucks, not just for the reasons I mentioned above, but also because Andy is a genuinely likable character. I dig him way more than Todd or Ken or all the rest of the males we are shown on a regular basis. So from an entirely non-racial standpoint, we once again lose a character that I really like just because he no longer serves a Wakefield-centric purpose. And we only got to meet him to begin with because someone felt it was time for a book about black-white race relations.
Charlie and his friends face no consequences for beating up and harassing Andy. Andy scares them off by threatening to sue the shit out of them if they don’t leave him alone, and Neil promises to always defend Andy against them in the future. But otherwise, Charlie gets off scot-free.
Agree with me, don’t agree with me, or somewhere in between; you’re all welcome to share your own thoughts in the comments.
Some other stuff: Charlie’s friends are Jim Sturbridge, Jerry “Crunch” McAllister, and Ron Reese. If Ron sounds familiar, it’s because he’s from Secret Admirer, where he was one of Kirk Anderson’s cronies and … guess what … a friend of Neil’s. (None of that stuff is mentioned in this book.)
The “N-word” is never used in this book, in case you were curious. That’s not very realistic, but I think the book was heavy and depressing enough without having Charlie and friends use it.
We finally hear more about Ken Matthews and his current eyesight status. He is recovered, but Scott Trost is still filling the quarterback position. No word on whether Scott is still dating Amy.
Jade Wu appears out of nowhere at the lunch table to try to make a joke about better cafeteria food during a heated discussion about SVH not teaching more about Mexican American history. (Manuel is not amused with her, but everyone else is.)
Why is everyone ragging on Pi Beta Alpha, and acting like it’s the only sorority? In the very beginning, all we heard about was that PBA was the “most exclusive” of all the sororities.
The back cover of this book says that Andy and Neil have been best friends for “years” and the last book gave that impression as well. But here we are told that Neil and Andy really only became friends recently when they got paired together in Marine Biology class.
Neil has an older brother named Gary who is a freshman at USC.
Jessica is on a diet on the first page of the book, skipping lunch so that she can fit into her cheerleading uniform. And Liz just laughs and thinks about how Jessica is very thin and this is just typical behavior. I don’t even need to comment, do I?
Set-up for next book: Scott flunks two classes and gets suspended from the football team, so it’s time for quarterback tryouts. Everyone expects Ken to take his old position back now that he’s recovered his eyesight, but Liz and Penny are wondering if a girl might try out instead … the one who sent in the note asking why girls aren’t allowed to play football. This is clearly already going to set off a book about sexism. Man, the series is suddenly going all ABC After-School Special on us and attempting to tackle (pun not intended, I swear) real issues.