Mark Oshiro

Anger Is a Gift

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Anger Is a Gift Summary

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Anger Is a Gift (2018) is Mark Oshiro’s debut novel. This contemporary young adult fiction follows the decision of a group of increasingly oppressed teenagers to protest against the way their high school treats them. The book has been variously praised for its inclusion of a variety of characters from marginalized communities: the main character is an overweight black gay teen, whose friends include a trans character, a non-binary character, a bisexual/biromantic character, an asexual character, a Latinx character, a Muslim character, an undocumented character, and a disabled character. At the same time, according to many readers, the book suffers from Oshira’s decision to transform his original near-future dystopian science fiction setting into one that is meant to be realistic, since plot elements that would have worked in the speculative genre are no longer coherent in contemporary reality.

Sixteen-year-old Moss Jeffries has been suffering from panic disorder and anxiety attacks for the last six years. When he was ten, not only was his father shot and killed by a police officer in Oakland, California, in a case of mistaken identity, mistaken location, and a gleefully trigger-happy cop, but also after the murder, the media vilified his father, making it sound as if he deserved to be shot.

Now a sophomore in high school, Moss copes with his mental illness as best as he can with the help of his loving mother, Wanda, his best friend, Esperanza, and his crew of queer friends – a widely diverse group of teens who some readers complain is hard to keep track of because almost none has a strong, individual storyline. Despite the fact that Moss is overweight, black, gay, and out, his high school environment features no bullying or prejudice from other students – something critics point out might be true in a near-future world, but reads as unrealistic in a real-life setting.

As the novel opens, Moss meets Javier, a sweet Latinx young man, whose excitable nerdiness matches well with Moss’s anxious but kindhearted nature. They quickly become romantically involved.

Meanwhile, as the school year progresses, Moss and his classmates are surprised to see new security measures being introduced at their school seemingly without cause. There are new rules and stricter penalties for breaking them. The administration decrees random locker searches, which immediately don’t seem random at all, as they are instead targeting black and brown kids, and kids from other marginalized communities. One of them is newly out as trans Shawna, who is assaulted by the school resource officer (the police officer assigned to patrol the school) for the depression medication found in her locker. Not only does nothing happen to the officer, but the kids face increasing intimidation and bullying from him and from other representatives of the Oakland Police Department.

This situation soon turns even more terrifying when new, high-powered metal detectors are installed in the school. Moss’s friend Reg, who uses a wheelchair most of the time, worries that metal detectors won’t be safe for the titanium pins implanted in his legs. When he is forced to go through the detector anyway, it turns out that he was right: the machine’s magnets are so strong that they pull the pins out of his body, pinning him to the wall. This is another plot element that suffers from the move away from science fiction, since the kind of metal that is surgically implanted in people’s bodies isn’t affected by MRI magnets, let alone metal detecting ones. The idea that hundreds of kids went through the detector this magnetically powerful without a problem, despite probably having piercings, braces, fillings, steel-toed boots, belts with metal buckles, hair pins, bra wires, leftover loose change, zippers, etc., only to have Reg almost killed, pulled many readers out of the story in disbelief. It is not clear why a school that is having trouble buying books would spend money on this overpowered, military-grade detector, rather than the more ordinary ones.

At this point, Moss’s anger about what is happening boils over, but he doesn’t know where to direct this emotion. Moss’s mother and Reg’s girlfriend organize a series of protests to oppose the high school’s security measures. Reg becomes the poster boy for this movement, but as critics point out, doesn’t have a voice in what is happening – at one point, someone actually picks up his wheelchair without asking permission to move him. At the same time, the movement’s originators fade into the background, as Moss decides to participate and somehow ends up reaping all the praise for fighting back against the oppressive school administration.

Esperanza, who is very close to and loving with Moss, and who spends her time with him helping him manage his panic attacks, nevertheless isn’t 100 percent on board with the protests. Because she is the adopted child of a wealthy white family and goes to a rich, majority-white school, she isn’t sure that Moss and his friends are doing the right thing by vilifying the entire police department and school administration rather than singling out individual bad actors. Moss is furious with her for voicing a different opinion.

A tragedy strikes when Javier is killed – an incident that triggers Moss’s worst anxiety impulses, provoking a series of panic attacks that are almost unbearable. Still, despite his desire to retreat forever, Moss continues with the protest movement.

At the book’s climax, the gathered students are face to face with the police, who brutalize Esperanza as they attempt to corral the kids to stop their walkout. In a reaction that readers point to as a worrisome sign of misogyny in the book, Moss’s response to his best friend being beaten is happiness. To him, she had it coming, and will now learn her lesson and know that disagreeing with him is always a mistake. At the end of the day, a tearful Esperanza makes a groveling apology to Moss, who doesn’t seem concerned about what has just happened to her.

The book ends without a pat conclusion. On the one hand, the police officer who killed Javier turns himself in. On the other hand, a still angry Moss walks away from that of which he has been a part.