One thought on “Butter

  1. Pritchard & Ellis says:

    Susan’s Take
    The subject of this review is the novel Butter, by Erin Jade Lange. I enjoyed the book; I thought it was engaging and, for the most part, realistic. I’m going to encourage my 14- year-old son to read it.
    This is the story of an obese high school student, nicknamed Butter, who develops an elaborate plan to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve by eating himself to death. In desperation, he sets up a website to promote his plan and becomes instantly popular with his peers. Butter’s struggle with his unanticipated popularity is one of the book’s major themes.
    The pace of the book is very good. I was immediately engaged. Although the subject is horrible and off-putting, I wanted to find out what happened to Butter. Even though there were only two obvious outcomes to the story, I wasn’t able to predict the ending. It isn’t contrived or artificial. I was rooting for him to make a complete turnaround, shut off the website and have the courage to face up to that difficult decision, but I wasn’t sure that was going to happen.
    Most of the characters are believable, although the story does flirt with stereotypes. For example, at Butter’s affluent high school, all the teenagers drive high end cars and the popular girls are thin and blonde. Still, the story doesn’t cross into obvious stereotyping. When Butter reflects on his isolation, he recognizes how the choices he has made contributed to it, rather than blaming it all on outside influences. Butter’s conflicted emotions turn on a dime, in typical adolescent fashion. One minute, Butter revels in his new-found admiration and in the next, is disgusted and hurt when he realizes his new “friends” are betting on whether he’ll actually go through with his plan.
    Butter is a well-written story. It makes two difficult topics- teenage obesity and suicide- very accessible. I think teenage readers would relate to Butter and his struggles. And I think the book could get teenagers to consider new perspectives on what it means to be an obese high school student.

    Gail’s Take
    The trigger: Anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, sadness, 400+ pounds
    The plan: Ingest alcohol to give him courage, eat too fast and too much and choke, eat strawberries to which he is highly allergic, forego his insulin shots and reduce carbs a few days prior to and leading up to New Year’s Eve, take prescription drugs to push him over the edge.
    The intent: A suicide broadcast live via the Internet.
    The result: Irony—his life got better when he decided to end it.
    This is the story of Malcolm, a 423 lb. sixteen year-old who decides to end his life with a last meal and broadcast it live via webcast: “I couldn’t control the kids at school. I couldn’t control my parents or my weight or my life…but I could command the conversation online…” (p. 68). He quickly builds a website and sends out his first message announcing his intent to end his life on December 31st by eating himself to death with a special last meal. Malcom, better known as Butter–a nicknamed resulting from an incident in junior high when a bully and his group forced him to eat a stick of butter–is surprised to find the day after the posting, twenty-seven comments. He is equally surprised at the tone of the comments, “People really don’t care if I die? Why didn’t anyone tell someone?” (p. 77). News of Butter’s website becomes fodder for his classmates, betting begins, help in planning his last meal arrives via website comments, the in-crowd embraces him and offers encouragement—not that things will get better, but their support of his upcoming endeavor. While he soon realizes every comment made on his website, every invitation from the in-crowd is “an uptick in [his] popularity points” (p. 227), he “never meant for [his] threat to truly be a swan song—just a loud note to catch some attention…” (p. 209). His classmates become voyeurs first, then active participants in the days leading up to his announced suicide date.
    By now, you may be asking yourself, “Where are the parents?” Exactly. Barely into the book, I wrote a note asking, what is the parent’s responsibility in all of this? It didn’t take long to find out that Butter’s mom actively aided in his weight, fixing him meals and snacks, packing lunches that took up a table to lay out, offering him food at the slightest hint of distress; in the meantime, his father gradually quits speaking to him: “Dad tried to pretend neither I nor my plate existed, but by my third helping, he looked physically ill and excused himself from the table” (p. 28), and later, “I actually turned to see if someone was standing behind me. Nope. Dad was speaking directly to me, for the first time in I don’t know how long” (p. 206). I also questioned Butter’s unlimited freedom—there seemed to be no limitations placed on him, what-so-ever; and in fact, for any of the kids at his school. The story takes place in Scottsdale, AZ, an upscale community where the “in-crowd” kids live in mansions and drive cars like Butter’s BMW and Parker’s Corvette. They have parties with unlimited access to alcohol and raid the medicine cabinets for prescription drugs. Where is the supervision?
    I asked a friend who is a child psychiatrist about this situation—I told her about the book and read some passages to her. I asked what she would do if she had a patient in this circumstance. She didn’t bat an eye and said, I do. We spent a few minutes talking about Butter. She told me the family has to work together as a unit; they have to get temptations out of the house, the whole family has to make dietary changes, the parents have to follow through with appointments and not blame their child for not following through with recommendations, and ultimately—CPS might have to get involved, particularly when the neglect results in medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, liver disease, and some forms of cancer. Now before anyone overreacts to what I just said, keep in mind—this is a specific situation with the involvement of specific factors. I know there are diligent parents out there and I know there are outside factors that can contribute to childhood obesity; I also know we react to obesity in a different way than we do other illnesses—the first response is to generally blame the one who is obese…think about it.
    This seems to be particularly true in Butter’s case. I just want to smack the mom and dad. What are they thinking? And the kids at his school—they have become active participants in Butter’s suicide. Trent and Parker create a “bucket list” for Butter and make it their mission to complete it. Parker places bets on various events leading up to and including New Year’s Eve. The kids make suggestions for Butter’s last meal; and Parker hooks up a 60” plasma TV to his computer so everyone at the New Year’s Eve party can watch Butter end his life. All of this reminds me of the two Steubenville football players who took pictures, sent text messages and tweets, and posted a video of their raping of a sixteen year-old girl in August 2012. What boggles the mind is how the community of teens in Steubenville passed the photos and videos on to others, essentially “revictimizing” the teen “through social media,” adding their comments to this horrific event. This is virtually the same scenario for Butter.
    Lange’s story hits at the heart of what is wrong with some of our society—perhaps she is hinting that reality TV has become too real and that social media has become a dangerous playground; perhaps she is asking why the parents and kids see Butter’s obesity as his fault and his alone; perhaps she is saying limits are good and parents should be more involved in their children’s life; perhaps she is making a commentary that there are adolescents out there that don’t know where to turn when they are scared and in pain; ultimately Butter says it best, “I wanted all the life that had come to me only after I’d threatened to throw life away. And I wanted it unconditionally, without the suicidal pre-requisite” (p. 305.)
    I was knocked over by this cautionary tale’s poignant reminder that bullying doesn’t go away, it just goes underground—or in this case, online; that as a nation, we still view obesity as the individual’s lack of control; and suicide remains “the third leading cause of death among young males, age fifteen to twenty-four” (NIMH). I found Butter to be a riveting read—I even thought about calling in sick so I could finish it in one day; it was tough to leave it behind. I fell asleep at night thinking about Butter. I thought a lot about the deep emotional pain he experienced and how he turned that pain inward and the tragedy in the joy he felt with the attention he received from the in-crowd, even knowing they were simply waiting for the show to begin. Lange’s debut novel is a worthy read and I look forward to her next.

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