Hanna is a half-Finnish, half-African-American girl who was raised by her Finnish father. After he died, she lived with her aunt Ulla. When we first meet Hanna, though, she is on the front doorstep of her estranged mother’s house after she smacked Ulla on the head and fled. (Ulla is alive, don’t worry. But she’s pissed, and she informs Rosalee of Hanna’s outburst.) Hanna’s mom, Rosalee, lives in Portero, Texas, which is unfriendly to newcomers (transies, short for “transient”) and which, as it turns out, has a lot of supernatural business in the form of hidden doors all around town, ghosts, evil spirits, and wish-granting Keys made of bones. Hanna is determined not to be a transy, but given that even her own mother doesn’t want her there, it’s difficult to find a way to fit in.
When I read Bleeding Violet the first time, I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder II but wasn’t really doing anything for it, nor did I have much understanding of it. I was absolutely open about my diagnosis, but I think that openness was a sort of front for not actually dealing with it or getting proper care. Hanna, too, tells anyone who asks that she’s bipolar, so I found her to be a lot like me in that regard. (It helps that we share a name and are both biracial.)
Hanna is not totally convinced of the efficacy of her meds and is a little lazy about taking them regularly. To Rosalee’s credit, while she is not at all kind when Hanna first arrives, she does insist that Hanna take her pills every day. Hanna even tests Rosalee’s dedication (and her own illness) by not taking her meds for a while, just to see if Rosalee notices. It’s clear that she likes the fact that someone is playing grown-up for her, but she doesn’t want to admit it. Her mother also tells her that she needs to see a therapist and makes Hanna’s appointments for her.
Hanna is the kind of teen that a more conservative adult might label as “wild.” She does whatever she wants, doesn’t take no for an answer, and has consequence-free sex. She goes for what she wants until she gets it—especially if it’s people. She makes a bet with her mother that she will fit in within two weeks, and when she decides that she likes the look of Wyatt Ortiga, a high school classmate, she doesn’t hide her attraction to him.
Wyatt is a member of the Mortmaine, a shadowy, not-all-that-well-explained group dedicated to keeping things orderly in Portero. Wyatt is a bit of a bad boy. He’s perfectly happy to have sex with Hanna, whom he likes back, plus his gift for inventing magical solutions to Portero’s evil spirit problem does not make the conservative, by-the-book Mortmaine very happy.
It’s important to note that part of Hanna’s story is that she used to have hallucinations—or what she assumed were hallucinations—of her father and other things. These became real when she got to Portero. You never quite know whether they were actually hallucinations, which are marks of another disorder altogether, or if it’s that she misunderstood them because she didn’t yet know that there were really ghosts in the world. I’m a bit worried uninitiated readers might read that and assume that all bipolar people have hallucinations, when in reality it’s an uncommon symptom. And that people who aren’t familiar with what it’s like to have a semi-managed mental illness will think that Hanna is “unrealistic” precisely because she isn’t out of control. That same question arises when I consider the violent acts she commits – from the off-page assault of her aunt to a later on-page assault on her mother, it could be read as the usual “crazy lady does crazy things” stereotype. But for me, it didn’t feel that way, partly because this is a horror story with a lot of other violence – not gratuitous, but Portero is a gritty world, so it didn’t feel any more out of place than violence on any crime or science fiction television show.
Overall, I’m fairly pleased with the portrayal of Hanna as someone with bipolar disorder, and I think this is a welcome novel. The plot is not “how it feels to be bipolar”; it’s “welcome to a strange, terrifying town that just happens to have a bipolar resident, and hey, she’s pretty cool.” If this book has flaws, it’s that Portero is incredibly complicated, and there’s maybe a bit too much stuff going on in terms of plot, especially packed into the end.
Hanna is a character with bipolar disorder. She’s not Bipolar Disorder, the walking human diagnosis. I think people who share the disease will find something soothing in seeing someone who both manages and mismanages her illness realistically. She doesn’t totally fly off the handle, and she’s never presented as someone who has absolutely wild mood swings all the time, the way the condition is often portrayed. She has angry outbursts, and she feels perhaps unduly angry sometimes, but those are both human and a mark of someone who maybe doesn’t quite have the right cocktail of medications and treatments yet, which is a very realistic thing. Hanna is very much in progress, and I believe this is the first book I’ve read that shows someone post-diagnosis who is not new to the condition, yet still trying to figure things out.