Sending love to the aeroplanes while lying on a picnic table is something I’d like to do a little more often. Teenager Astrid has it down to a fine art. A reminder of how, for some of us, we coped in our youth when questions of sexuality arose and that feeling of being a little different from the crowd.
Ask the Passengers by AS King is essentially about love and acceptance; a classic coming of age – coming out story. However, this book stretches us a little further.
Astrid, our protagonist, is a teenager living with her family in a small town in Pennsylvania, having moved from New York City. A senior in high school she not only has to endure the small mindedness of the locals, but the increasing disparity and dysfunction of her family. Knowing herself to be different, Astrid finds the best way to cope is to lie on the picnic bench in the back garden and send love and life questions to passengers on aeroplanes. It is here that King starts to create a little magic, juxtaposing Astrid’s questions with an anecdote from a random passenger on the plane. It adds quirkiness, cleverly drawing our minds to the interconnectedness of ourselves to one another and the world, wherever we are, whoever we are.
The main thrust of the storyline is when Astrid meets Dee and they become girlfriends. Astrid has a genuine need to move slowly in her discovery not only of her sexuality, but in questioning her whole self. However, her friends and girlfriend begin
to push for her to come out to her family, misunderstanding her request to be left alone. We feel Astrid becoming increasingly isolated yet standing firm in her self belief and wish to define herself on her own terms. Her love and study of philosophy
is a crutch, even adopting Socrates (nicknamed Frank) as her imaginary friend and confidante. King uses the philosophy angle, particularly the elusive character of Socrates to develop the notion of questioning who we are. This effectively highlights the bigotry surrounding Astrid and the propensity for people to label and stereotype.
Astrid is, however, eventually propelled forward to be open about her sexuality, coming out to her family who have a mixed and generally negative initial reaction, as seemingly do the entire town. King whips up the emotional responses to Astrid’s intolerable situation; anger, sadness and heightened comedy that such times can invoke. Eventually, Astrid finds light at the end of the tunnel when all settles down and people rediscover respect and dare we hope, a broader perspective.
It is a thought provoking book while remaining highly readable, funny and original; inspiring for a younger crowd and especially those questioning or discovering their sexuality. For those of us who are a little older, it keeps check on our journey of challenging societal norms, reflecting on our own experiences and how and if times have changed that much. Have they? A question I spent a little time thinking about after closing this book. One thing I do recall, however, is like Astrid I found the whole notion of ‘coming out’ perplexing and abstruse and I’ve no doubt I am not alone in this.
AS King is an American writer of young adult fiction. Ask the Passengers is her fourth novel and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.