I could have read Susan Defreitas’ debut novel Hot Season when I received an advance copy in July, but I’m glad I didn’t. Because in the wake of a painful election, reading the local author and editor’s clean, evocative prose was like stepping into my own adolescence in Seattle in the weeks, months, and years following the 2000 election of another popular vote loser, George W. Bush. During that time, Seattle was what Portland is under the current cruel joke-elect: a place for the left to gather, mourn, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and understand that while progress is slow in coming if it comes at all, the only option is to resist.
The characters in Hot Season are at a similar crossroads. Three young women thrown together by circumstance at a left-leaning college in small-town Arizona during the Bush administration, Katie, Rell, and Jenna must navigate this progress-averse world. The book’s prologue, wherein naïve freshman Katie befriends a man who lives in a treehouse and decides that Weather Underground-style tactics are fine, left me worried that the book might fall into the trap of reductive mythmaking in its depiction of activism. But as Hot Season unfolds, Defreitas does the opposite, adding layers and layers of enjoyable complexity.
Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans (the equally problematic opposite of mythologizing), DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success. Hot Season’s world of political activism is one in which there are no shortcuts, and nobody is a hero, or as Rell puts it, “Real change was nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”
DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe—the color of a sunset, the horrible white-people dreads of college manarchists, the yerba maté beside the soil science textbook—to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women. It’s a sad fact that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by swaggering white-guy hypocrisy. Here, they’re given room to breathe, and watching their various sundry selves evolve is something I’m glad to have witnessed.