In a number of my many communication classes, we learned that stories are what makes us human. There are theories on how storytelling indicates higher intelligence and whatnot, but more importantly, stories are what brings us together.
Have I got a story for you: Rafi Mittlefehldt’s What Makes Us. This was such a good book and I’m just going to start by saying that you should give it a chance. –Just like with last week’s Spies, I didn’t realize this was a teen book, but I think its plot is really well done and could be impactful for all audiences.
Mittlefehldt tells us the story of Eran Sharon (Sha-rohn), a young Jewish boy living in Texas who has a love for social justice. However, when a protest he planned goes awry and some family dirt is uncovered, his life is completely turned upside down.
While the novel focuses on Eran, it also gives attention to his mother and to his friend Jade. Not only do the sections of the book from their perspective give readers an alternative viewpoint from which to see the current plot events; those chapters also give insight into those characters and allow for further exploration of what it means to know one’s self and those around.
I loved how developed and detailed the characters and events are in the novel, it gave it a true sense of realism that I greatly appreciated. Moreover, the novel is set in the current time, so I also enjoyed how Mittlefehldt incorporated current events into the story by way of describing the current political climate. (Slight spoiler and potential trigger warning, there’s some racial/ethnic tensions in the book.) However, while those elements are hugely important to the story, a call to seek out social justice and equilibrium does not seem to be the purpose of the book.
Instead, Mittlefehldt asks his characters to consider their identities and be self reflexive–and by doing so, asks us readers as well. Through Eran and Jade especially, he asks how much of our identity is shaped by others and questions if and how we may change that. How much do our parents and their decisions what to (or not) tell us impact the way we and others view ourselves? Both Eran and Jade uncover bits of their past that were totally unexpected–it’s hard enough to try and find yourself as a teenager, but imagine what it would be like if something you always believed about yourself (or family) turned out to be false: that’s at the core of this story.
I think this is a really interesting concept, and I don’t see very many books tackle self-reflexivity and discovery. So for this book to do so with its characters, which are so alive, it’s really refreshing and definitely makes the reader think.
I really enjoyed this book and appreciate how much time and effort was put into it. It’s clear while reading, and even moreso after reading the acknowledgements that Mittlefehldt put a lot of heart and research behind this novel.
That’s all I have for now. Look out for my post on