Book Review: Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce

Confession: I actually read Sisters Red a long time ago, but I never got around to reviewing it. So this could really more properly be termed a belated book review. Because I know you are all dying to hear what I think of a book that came out in 2010, right? Actually, the reason I chose to take another look at Sisters Red after re-reading it recently was because of the round of complex discussion that’s gone on around the book. I’m going to take a chance and assume you’ve read it, but if you haven’t, stop now if you don’t want to hear discussions of plot details.

Sisters Red is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story; it’s about two sisters, Scarlett and Rosie, who were orphaned after their grandmother was killed by a Fenris, the term used in the text for werewolves. Under the tutelage of their friend Silas, they become Hunters, seeking out Fenris and killing them so they can’t harm other victims. Two things become especially textually important, and lay at the heart of the controversy over the book: Scarlett is heavily scarred because of her fights with the Fenris, and the Fenris focus on targeting young girls, particularly those wearing red (a reference to the fairy tale upon which the novel is based).

Some readers were troubled in particular by a scene where Scarlett is in the City watching a line of girls outside a club, all dolled up for a night out:

They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiralling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights — amber, ebony, cream — like shined metal, flawless and smooth. I press harder against the crumbly brick wall behind me, tugging my crimson cloak closer to my body. The scars on my shoulders show through fabric when I pull the cloak tight. Bumpy red hills in perfectly spaced lines.

Scarlett goes on to express anger and irritation that she’s scarred and wounded on their behalf, that they get to live in a glittering world where they’ve never heard of the Fenris and don’t have a care in the world. She muses about letting the Fenris have them and ultimately realises she doesn’t really want that, because she cares about the girls, because that’s who she is and what she does. The writing in the scene walks a very fine line between capturing Scarlett’s bitterness about her looks (a theme in the book) and shaming young women for wanting to wear makeup and dress up, and the side of the line you think it falls on is very open to interpretation.

As the scene continues, Silas joins her, and he’s described as viewing the women with disgust: ”It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it?’ he asks pointedly.’

A lot of readers identified this as victim-blaming. Here’s Silas basically saying that dressing up like that is asking for it, and expressing some irritation at the fact that he and Scarlett have to swoop in and save the day because these silly females insist on behaving like this. Throughout the book, the idea that the Fenris prey on women who dress up, wear makeup, speak in sexy voices, and perform other gestures of very traditional femininity is emphasised again and again. One interpretation of that framing is that either Pearce or the characters themselves, or both, are victim-blaming here, suggesting that good girls, safe girls, smart girls, dress practically, are prepared at all times with weapons, don’t let themselves get caught up in frivolity.

Yet, I think there’s more than one way to read this, and my take on it is a little different from that of some critics. While I agree that the surface narrative here (‘stupid girls being all girly and getting themselves killed’) does indeed blame the victims, I think readers are supposed to read that into the text; in other words, we aren’t supposed to nod and accept what Scarlett, Silas, and to some extent Rosie say on this subject, but rather, we are supposed to challenge it.

Scarlett and Rosie live in extreme isolation, Scarlett in particular, and Scarlett has pulled her sister into an extremely narrow way of life and mindset. This, too, is thematically important in the text as Rosie struggles with wanting to be something other than a hunter, but feeling like she owes her sister her life because Scarlett saved them during the attack that killed their grandmother (because, of course, Fenris will ultimately prey on anyone if they’re hungry enough). Silas, meanwhile, has spent the last year in San Francisco, exploring a life outside of hunting, and Scarlett repeatedly criticises him for it.

She lives in such a small world that she’s set up a rigid set of right and wrong rules she wants to adhere to, and she wants everyone else to follow along with her. I don’t think that’s presented positively within the text; I don’t see Scarlett’s sneering opinions of young women in fancy dress as a positive character trait and I don’t believe we’re supposed to as readers. Instead, they are a cautionary tale, an illustration of how dangerous it can be to become consumed by an obsession, to refuse to let up, to surround yourself in an armour of specific beliefs.

This is a complex book and it’s one that merits discussion. There’s no one right or wrong way to read it, and it’s a discussion worth having, but I’m reluctant to dismiss Sisters Red because of this one scene; because there are so many reads of that scene, and so many ways to talk about it. When this book is being read in settings like the classroom, that provides a chance to open up a discussion about perceptions of text, readings, and, of course, victim-blaming in the real world.