As a lifelong fan of X-Men, I was instantly drawn to Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Rogue. The main character, Kiara, is an undiagnosed Aspie with a deep fascination with the world of X-Men and mutants. While she is never formally diagnosed, the likelihood of her having autism is addressed several times throughout the book, and an internet search confirms her suspicions. She strongly identifies with the character Rogue, who cannot touch or be touched, who grew up an outcast because of her special ability and was vulnerable to manipulation by people who didn’t have her best interests at heart. Kiara’s fascination with X-Men and her self-identification with Rogue help her to relate to a world that she never seems to fully understand, much to the chagrin of those around her.
When the book starts, the other kids at school know her as “Crybaby Kiara.” This leads to Kiara making it a point to try and befriend new kids before they find out about that nickname, even though it “usually took the new kids two weeks to dump [her], three weeks at the most.” The novel begins at a point of upheaval in Kiara’s life. When Kiara makes the mistake of sitting with the latest new girl and her new group of popular friends, she is shunned and ridiculed as her lunch tray is knocked to the ground. Infuriated, Kiara strikes the new girl in the head with her tray, resulting in her dismissal from the school and subsequent homeschooling.
Kiara’s only real friend up until that point had been an elderly gentleman who ran a record and comic book store out of his home, where Kiara would go after school and help out. He had been the person who introduced Kiara to the world of X-Men, so the combined loss of her friend and the disruption of her sense of security and routine gravely impact her. Her mother is a traveling singer who is away for months at a time, her two older brothers are off at college, and the only adult who is a constant in her life, her father, is barely capable of caring for himself. Kiara is essentially left to fend for herself, often fixing her own meals and studying independently.
When a new family moves next door with two children, a boy about Kiara’s age and a younger boy around five, Kiara is eager to befriend them before she’s outed as “Crybaby Kiara.” The younger sibling Brandon is instantly likeable–sweet, imaginative, and surprisingly intuitive and patient when it comes to Kiara’s social difficulties. The elder, Chad, is abrasive, which is likely typical for a young teenage boy who’s into BMX biking when confronted by a girl who talks endlessly about X-Men and mutants. Nevertheless, Chad invites Kiara on a bike ride around the town, which is later revealed to be a front for purchasing large quantities of pseudoephedrine, used in the manufacturing of methamphetamines. Both Chad and his brother are forced to participate in its manufacturing by his parents–whether by cleaning, being a lookout, or by purchasing Sudafed, because most stores wouldn’t think twice to question a kid buying medicine for his brother.
This was a plot twist I was not even remotely expecting–it is, after all, geared towards young adults, and illegal drugs initially felt like a very solidly adult theme to me. But upon further reflection, I realized it isn’t–that, in fact, with the recent insurgence of heroin epidemics in this country, coupled with its increasing popularity with teens, it is unfortunately very much a young adult issue, one that is extremely important to address. Especially so for Aspies, as we have a tendency to be more naive and less worldly than our neurotypical counterparts. As I was reading, I could easily recall several instances in my own childhood and adolescence where I was persuaded to lie, cheat or steal by my peers, desperate for their acceptance. Like Kiara, there were instances where I was unknowingly manipulated, and this deeply resonated with me–the sense of betrayal and frustration–both at yourself for not being able to see it, and at the person who should have been your friend.
What I love most about Kiara (as well as the novel itself, actually) is that she is unflinchingly genuine. Sooner or later, most Aspie characters written by neurotypicals eventually become caricatures of themselves–their behaviors become too “textbook,” and they begin to align themselves with all the ableist tropes we Aspies are so, so tired of seeing. Having an Autistic character written by an actual Aspie makes all the difference, as we are more in tune with the daily lived realities of being on the spectrum. Nearly anybody can describe a tantrum, but only a true Aspie can give readers a glimpse of what it’s really like to live as we do, with those small but significant moments: where we take something entirely too literally, and are met with a smile, a sneer, a chuckle, an eye roll, or some combination thereof; where we feel like our thoughts must be transparent, because we have no idea how to hide or disguise them; the feeling of constantly second guessing yourself because your lack of ability to read others’ intentions; where we take an unfamiliar concept or idea and translate it into something we can understand, like X-Men; or even in those moments where we show a surprising amount of insight for someone who often fails to see the obvious, like Kiara’s uncanny ability to understand her father’s limitations.
This sense of character depth is not limited to Kiara. Chad, who is neurotypical, is also extremely well written and complex. I went from hating him to hating him even more, then to loving him, then to disliking but empathizing with him, to feeling so much grief and compassion for a childhood lost that I actually cried (and no, this was not the first time that I’ve been a puddle of tears over a fictional character, nor will it be the last). I don’t wish to spoil any plot points, but suffice it to say that Chad is an incredibly deep and conflicted character, and he is so well-written that his angst, anger and grief are physically palpable. Other characters come and go, each with their own backstory and motivations, but this novel really shines with its focus on Aspie Kiara and neurotypical Chad, and how their complex backstories and lives intersect and conflict with one another.
I felt a mixture of emotions when I finished the book–a definite sadness for how cruel the world can be to the most vulnerable people, and incredible heartache for the innocent lives destroyed by drugs and greed; encouraged and heartened by the indomitable human spirit, unbroken by the devastating trials it was forced to endure; inspired to make my own mark on the world, to use the power of words to help heal the broken pieces of my own heart, and to hopefully help others to do the same.
I did experience a few eyebrow-raising moments, the most prominent being the cause of Kiara’s autism. One theory is posited that it was her father’s chemotherapy that led to her “mutated” genes. Considering that this book is marketed for a much younger audience, I felt that it was a bit problematic that this went unchallenged, considering the lack of scientific evidence to back that theory. I can understand using the mutant theme as a way to explain difference to children, but as an adult I found it reductive, because in going unchallenged, it was presented as the definitive cause when we really don’t know what causes it.
Rogue definitely put me through the wringer in ways I was completely not expecting, but this is an important book, unflinching in the face of difficult subject matter, unwavering in its portrayals of human experience, and extremely humanizing of the struggles we endure on and off the Autism spectrum.