“With the Fire on High” could have been a caricature. A teen mom raising a child in poverty, with her own mother dead and father absent. It could have been a story weighed down with gravitas. Or a fairy tale — the young mother from North Philly who dreams of being a chef.
But author Elizabeth Acevedo, whose debut “The Poet X” won the National Book Award last year, transcends old tropes, letting us into the mind and heart of a teenager as she struggles with how to follow her dreams — and whether she should.
Acevedo’s heroine is Emoni Santiago, an Afro-Latina high schooler who moves through the world fearlessly: “People wonder why I walk so hard, why I smile so rarely at strangers, why I mean mug and carry grit like loose change in my pocket.”
Unlike many teen pregnancy stories for young adults, “With the Fire on High” focuses on what happens after. When we meet Emoni, she is a high school senior taking care of 3-year-old “Babygirl” with help from her abuela.
Emoni’s life is consumed by decisions and obligations. She wakes up, gets Babygirl ready for day care, goes to school, works at the Burger Joint and comes home to do it all again. She is torn between applying for college and finding a job to support her family, between taking a culinary arts class or opting for study hall.
Her kitchen is the one place Emoni can be free and experiment with recipes from her African American and Puerto Rican roots. Whether it is mofongo, strawberry milk, arroz con pollo or mac and cheese, cooking is where Emoni finds release.
“Some days, when my feelings are like this, like a full pot of water with the fire on high, I don’t know what to cook,” she explains. “Plans and ideas escape my mind and instead I let my heart and hands take control.”
The story follows Emoni in her last year of high school as she confronts what is possible for her — in her culinary dreams, her romantic life and her capacity as a mother, daughter, granddaughter and young woman of color.
Recipes are sprinkled throughout the book, starting with Lemon Verbena Tembleque, a citrusy spin on a Puerto Rican coconut pudding which Emoni says is “best eaten cold while daydreaming about palm trees and listening to an Héctor Lavoe classic.”
Though the novel is written in prose, there are times Acevedo, who is herself a National Poetry Slam champion, veers toward verse: “I come from a place that’s as sweet as the freshest berry, as sour as curdled milk; where we dream of owning mansions and leaving the hood; where we couldn’t imagine having been raised anywhere else.”
Acevedo’s first novel, written in verse, centered on a teenage poet. Now, we have a teenage chef. A former eighth grade English teacher, Acevedo sees these young talents not as rarities. They are everywhere — and in Acevedo’s hands, their stories transcend what is expected of them.
Julie Depenbrock is a producer for the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, Washington D.C.’s NPR station.
By Elizabeth Acevedo
HarperTeen. 400 pp. $17.99