Follow Mary Winn Heider
Literature is full of books about outsiders, and this is especially true in fiction for young people. Often those books revolve around kids who come from different sorts of backgrounds and are ostracized for their differences.
It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre background than the one Mary Winn Heider lays on poor Fovea Munson. Her parents run a cadaver lab.
Yeah, you read that right.
They perform surgeries on dead bodies. And boy do they love their work.
I’ll say: “Dead bodies are the worst.”
They’ll say: “Fovea! They’re so helpful! There’s nothing better than a good, helpful dead body!”
“Especially,” my dad might say.
“When you need a hand!” my mom will finish.
They love their work so much they named their only daughter after a medical term: fovea. Which means eyeballs. Which in the grand scheme of medically inspired names is, I suppose, not as bad as it could get. They might have named her Hallux, which means great toe.
For years Fovea keeps the true nature of what her parents do under wraps. She tells everyone they’re doctors and leaves it at that. But of course the whole truth eventually comes out in spectacular fashion, and — no surprise — Fovea is labeled as a freak, an Igor, a girl who likely carries dead body cooties and should be avoided at all costs.
But that’s not the end of Fovea’s troubles. Her best friend, Em, ditches her for Dana, a more exciting and more popular (and less-Igorish) girl.
“Are we friends?”
She sighed deeply, like this was a huge hassle. “Eh.”
“Why?” I took a breath to steady my voice. To keep it matter-of-fact. “Why’d you replace me with Dana? Was it something I said?”
“We did all those things –”
“We didn’t do them. I did. You were just there.”
There was a short pause, exactly long enough for an owl to scoop up a tarantula in its beak.
Middle school is nothing if not brutal.
Adding another layer of humiliation, Fovea’s parents want her to spend the summer interning at the cadaver lab. Oh joy. Their assistant, Whitney, unexpectedly flew off to Florida, and they need help manning the front desk. You know, helping any visitors and ordering more body parts for dissection. The kind of summer job any red-blooded kid would die for.
At the lab, things go a little sideways. Or more sideways than they’ve already gone.
It’s at the lab that Fovea meets Lake, Andy and McMullen. Who used to be alive but are now deceased. Sort of. They died, and their heads were removed from their bodies, but somehow along the way they didn’t fully die.
They’re talking heads.
“I see,” I said, trying to sound like I saw. I took half a step closer to Lake. “How long — you know? How long have you been…a head?”
“Ahead of what? Like, the curve?”
I bent down to his level. “Right. Okay, how long have you been…here?”
“No clue,” he said glumly. “It’s really hard to tell in the freezer.”
Andy agreed. “He’s right. It can be difficult to keep track. But, speaking of being out of the freezer, we need a favor now that we’re out on the town!”
“You mean out on the table,” I said.
“Well, semantics,” Lake said breezily.
Heider has great fun with scenes like this. She fills Fovea Munson with macabre wit, displaying on nearly every page a true comic’s sense of timing and a playful grasp of the language. Almost every writer in the YA and middle-grade field attempts to replicate the kind of casual, off-hand, devil-may-care humor of modern teenagers.
But the truth is that adult authors are not teenagers any longer, and it is much more difficult to nail that vibe than one might imagine. Very few writers pull it off.
Heider is one who does.
The heads need a favor. As it turns out, so does Fovea. Because there should be a fourth talking head, but it has gone missing, and if Fovea can’t track it down her parents are going to be in big trouble.
Fovea agrees to help Lake, Andy and McMullen, and they agree to tell Fovea what they know about the missing head and where it went.
Which is when the fun really begins.
Normally when talking about a book that features disembodied talking heads you can safely say it’s unlike anything else you’ve read, but believe it or not that wouldn’t be true. I recently finished Joe Hill’s Basketful of Heads, which also happens to deal with disembodied talking heads, although in a much darker, more violent and more adult story.
What I can say is this: The Mortification of Fovea Munson is a pitch-perfect wonder. A novel filled with originality, macabre humor, and wonderfully realized characters. One can only hope that Heider continues to give us many more novels to come over the years, for she is in the first ranks of the field.