In the midst of recent protests triggered by the murder of yet another unarmed Black man, millions of Americans, especially the younger generation, are looking for ways to get educated on the history of systematic racism. First off, it is crucial to recognize the distinction between the killing of George Floyd and other situational acts of police brutality.
The sudden surge of the Black Lives Matter movement that we are seeing today is not simply a reaction to a singular racist act. Rather, the anger and frustration expressed by protestors address decades of institutionalized discrimination against people of color in the United States. The death of countless other unarmed and innocent Black Americans is evidence of that.
I hope this brief prologue gives context to the review I am about to share below. I am a strong advocate for the BLM movement, and I have provided resources that you could refer to for a more in-depth study on this topic below.
“This book is supposed to be uncomfortable. I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry.” — A.S. King
The extremely confusing and intertwined plotline of “Dig” is miles away from your typical linear storyboard. There are bends and U-turns and all types of inclines that add an eerie undertone to the irregular pace of the novel. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how else King could have distributed the different sections of the story without potentially ruining an essential detail to the composition of this masterpiece.
Readers are first introduced to none other than Marla and Gottfried Hemmings, extremely wealthy grandparents who live atop a family-owned potato farm that has been passed down for generations. As the metaphorical and literal “beginning” of the Hemmings lineage, they represent the crux of this novel’s chaos.
Essentially, the story is narrated through the perspectives of Marla and Gottfried’s five grandchildren: the Shoveler, the Freak, CanIHelpYou?, Loretta the Flea Circus Ring Mistress and First-Class Malcolm; while the other remaining chapters introduce character point of view’s that complete the plot’s missing pieces. Each of these five grandchildren come from drastically different walks of life, despite being part of one collective “family.”
However, Marla and Gottfried’s POV’s are essential to understanding the opaque layers of this particular family onion. For example, there are internal tensions and misunderstandings between almost every single family member, which snowball as more context is unveiled. Whether that’s a family secret, personal resentment or anything in between, the issues each character brings to the table seems to only get worse.
Moreover, Marla’s problematic stance on parenting becomes the origin of the family’s hostility and broken relationships, most clearly evident at the Hemmings’ Easter dinner table. The uneasy atmosphere between Marla and Gottfried’s children is arguably the result of Marla’s abusive maternal role and Gottfried’s passive by-standing. Their inability to properly nurture their children coupled with Marla’s tone-deafness to the world around her creates an image of selfishly wealthy but cold-hearted tyrants.
While Marla and Gottfried now face the bitterness of their five fully-grown children, their legacy begins to seep into the lives of their grandchildren as well. Ultimately, readers are only able to take away the true meaning behind this household’s turmoil by assessing each family member as unique individuals.
The Shoveler is an atypical, naive teenage boy with a strange obsession for a shovel that he borrowed from his 30-year old neighbor. The Shoveler is the textbook definition of an awkward, anti-social tween who is too paranoid about being bullied at his new high school to make any friends. According to his logic, spending free time at his neighbor’s house and quietly listening to the insignificant details of adult life seems more appealing than interacting with a world full of potential bullies.
Resulting from both the absence but primarily the anonymity of his biological father, the Shoveler’s identity crisis and unmistaken loneliness sets the opening stage for the story’s plot. His relatively unrelatable quandary creates a manageable premise that leaves readers undoubtedly sympathetic but largely unempathetic towards his character.
Although not all teenagers are troubled with lacking father-figures, the sporadic episodes of confused frustration that the Shoveler narrates is especially moving for younger readers, who can connect to these raw emotions to a varying extent.
What’s important to note about the Shoveler at this point is that the entire focus of his character becomes tied to a singularly defined concept: a young adolescent suffering a persisting internal crisis. All the characters follow a similar character model, in which readers abruptly jump into the messy lives of these five individuals in medias res. King is able to build convincing backstories for each character, who are completely independent of one another for the majority of the novel, by taking the time to give each protagonist their own set of conflicts.
By creating this level of depth without detracting from the main plot of the story, King takes a literary venture that is praiseworthy and should be seen in more YA works. There are many diverse barriers that enclose each of these ill-fated teenagers in seemingly unrelated worlds. That is until the reader realizes that they are actually caged within one much larger cage — privilege.
Racism according to “Dig”
As described in the novel, the roots of potatoes expand deep underground in thousands of off-shoots and forks; but they are bound by one root that can be traced back to a single node. The singularity in this story being none other than white privilege.
Not all non-racist white Americans are so willing to throw away the perks of racial privileges. From this standpoint, there are two main themes I personally believe King attempted to convey through the story:
- White privilege manifests generations of racist and white supremacist theories
- Good or bad, children are not their parents.
1. Of the five main protagonists, CanIHelpYou? and First-Class Malcolm noticeably stand out as the most outspoken leads throughout the novel. Likely correlated to the fact that they are the two oldest characters, CanIHelpYou? and First-Class Malcolm both express unrestrained disgust for racism and white entitlement in their respective streams of consciousness.
CanIHelpYou? witnesses racism first-hand as her Black childhood best friend Ian is continuously scrutinized by her outwardly racist mother. The guilt and embarrassment she feels by her mother’s racism makes her home life intolerable and puts a greater distance between herself and Ian.
There are scenes in CanIHelpYou?’s chapters that show glimpses of the mental strain her mother’s loud disapproval places on Ian, eventually forcing him to break up with CanIHelpYou? the summer after their senior year. Ian’s overly careful driving and perfect academic record create a blaring contrast to CanIHelpYou? — a failing student and local fast-food part-timer.
What makes their relationship so complicated is the fact that CanIHelpYou? is inherently a rich white girl who thinks she’s different. Unfortunately, she can never really escape her whiteness because no matter how hard she internally tries to deny it, the life she is living is based on a foundation of privilege and entitlement.
According to this narrative, it is impossible to step off of society’s special pedestal for white America unless you are a) not white or b) you are not part of our society — both of which CanIHelpYou? is not. Even if CanIHelpYou? fails at school and facilitates an illegal money-making scheme, she always has and will continue to enjoy the benefits of white privilege.
However, it is important to note that CanIHelpYou? is not a racist. She loves Ian and desperately wishes that things could be different between them. In essence, the point King makes is that even an ally like CanIHelpYou? must still accept the existence of her disparate privilege defined by the color of her skin. Her own internalized activism and resentment towards her mother is symbolic of the many Americans who are genuinely opposed to oppression.
But what becomes clear is that hating racial oppression is incongruent to a rejection of white entitlement. For example, CanIHelpYou? despises her mother for being a white supremacist, however, her mother is unable to face Ian because she understands that she will never be able to truly understand. Here, King is not trying to say that white people and people of color can never get along. The fundamental argument King makes is that acknowledging difficult truths is more important than deceiving yourself into believing some type of identity warp.
“You can think what you want. You can look at our Audi coupe and think we’re lucky. You can marvel at our flower beds and smell our lilac shrubs. But you can’t envy what it’s really like to live like this. Trust me. This is not the kind of thing you say gimme to.” — CanIHelpYou?
Next, we see First-Class Malcolm’s unique take on his own white privilege.
Sitting in a first-class seat on an airplane is exactly what bothers Malcolm. He isn’t a snobby rich kid, but instead, he hates everything about it and wishes people would realize the stupidity of elitist culture.
By reading Malcolm’s POV, it becomes clear he has a strong distaste for extravagance, as he constantly attempts to trivialize his own socialite status. Additionally, the character of First-Class Malcolm is much more dynamic than the others, partly because he travels all around the world with his father. While Malcolm relishes in his experiences abroad, he is also grounded by his complicated home life and wholesome ambitions.
For example, Malcolm’s father is a stage-four cancer patient with only a few more months to live. Malcolm experiences intense frustration by Marla and Gottfried’s refusal to help his father and their disillusioned denial of his father’s health problems. Marla ignores her son’s dire situation by believing everything is completely fine.
Thus, Malcolm grows to hate his grandparents and wants nothing to do with their, in his perspective, lunacy. To Malcolm, the only hope he has of escaping Marla and Gottfried’s custody after his father passes away is by running away to his long-desired home — Jamaica.
Throughout Malcolm’s travels, Jamaica has always acted as Malcolm’s safe haven because his crush Eleanor lives there. Of course, there is no real romantic relationship between Malcolm and Eleanor, but Malcolm is willing to believe in his romanticized version of Jamaica.
Unexpectedly, Malcolm later undergoes a change of heart when he comes to the epiphany that everything he loves about Jamaica is only attractive to himself. With that in mind, it becomes clear that Malcolm’s heart for Jamaica is actually symbolic of his detachment from the privileged life he lives back at home.
For example, he scoffs at Marla’s elitist behavior countless times and bemoans the pompous attitude of his grandparents because he does not identify with them. Since Malcolm is exposed to the struggles of poverty and marginalization through Eleanor’s experiences, he is repulsed by the status endowed to him by generations of privileged, white ancestors.
Malcolm resonates with Eleanor and attempts to abandon his privilege whenever he can. However, the importance of this comes at the end of the novel when Malcolm decides to continue living with Marla and Gottfried in order to eradicate ignorance in the place that needs his help most.
Malcolm concludes that living in Jamaica would actually be counterintuitive to bringing effective change since the people of Jamaica are already familiar with the brutality of discrimination. Thus, he recognizes he must seek out individuals who need to be educated, starting in his own home. Essentially, it becomes clear to Malcolm that he has the power to use his voice to completely change the course of his family’s racist agenda.
2. The second theme of the novel that is tied to modern racism is the need for a self-procured identity. This is best demonstrated by the complex relationship between Marla and her children, as well as the relationship between Marla’s children and their own children.
To no surprise, Marla is the epitome of an ignorant racist who dogmatically clings to the bigoted beliefs of white superiority. Throughout the novel, it isn’t explicitly obvious that Marla is this type of way until she finally reveals the “secret” that allegedly caused her children’s problems.
Described as too embarrassing to even tell her own husband, this secret that Marla continues to reference throughout the novel is none other than the fact that she was once a recipient of an African American blood donor as a child. Even at her old age, she is still disgusted by this fact and is terrorized by the idea that she is some sort of “half-blood”— a nickname coined by her own uncle.
To readers, this sounds completely absurd and even laughable, however, this characterization of Marla is key to understanding the idea of inherited belief systems. Marla represents the type of racism that is too deeply ingrained in her identity that there is no means of the fixture. However, the real question is whether or not this translates to her own children’s ideas about race.
Although the parents of the Shoveler, CanIHelpYou?, First-Class Malcolm, the Freak and Loretta the Flea Circus Ring Mistress do not have their own POV chapters, there is a clear distinction between the non-racists and the racists. The Shoveler’s mother opposes ideas of white supremacy despite also growing up under Marla’s care. For example, her refusal to form a deeper connection with the Shoveler’s neighbor results from her inherent disapproval of his white supremacist beliefs. Thus, King illustrates the liberation from parent-taught ideals as an important freedom that facilitates change among young people. By blindly following the patterns of generational ignorance, there is no means of emancipation from the historically accustomed system of racial oppression.
“Dig” was hard to read.
After finishing “Dig” by A.S. King a few months ago, I definitely did not anticipate for its story to be so heavily relevant until the past few weeks. Picking up this novel, I had absolutely no clue what to expect even after reading the brief summary printed on the back of the book.
The novel stands out among countless other YA novels because King effectively forces readers to face the uncomfortable reality of American society head-on. It is both candid and hard-hitting, even more so because it vividly pronounces the harrowing scene of our modern United States.
This contemporary novel challenges all other genres of YA that deals with similarly daunting narratives — highlighting the existence of deeply-rooted societal problems that are still prevalent in the contemporary era. One of the biggest triumphs of this novel is King’s masterful ability to compose such a jarring story without missing a single beat, both in her characterization of five young teenagers and their struggle to find meaning in a world of chaos.
I highly encourage all people to pick up “Dig” by A.S. King. This is a story that not only brings awareness to an extremely relevant social issue but also empowers young adults to set a precedent for our country’s future agenda. There are so many elements to this novel that I was not able to fully develop in my review so I recommend you read this novel yourself and explore the story further in detail. Additionally, I realize that everyone is subject to their own personal interpretations, so feel free to leave your thoughts down below.