Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels

cover art for Dangerous AngelsRebecca Scott wrote this review.

Our stories can set us free, Dirk thought. When we set them free.

This book includes: Weetzie Bat (1989), Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992), Missing Angel Juan (1993), and Baby Be-Bop (1995)

I wish I had found these books ten years ago. Reading them now, I love them. If I had read them then, when I lived in the strange passion-pain fairy tale that was my teenage years, they would have woven themselves into me, become some of those books that helped to shape me. They would not, I think, have much changed who I have become, but they would have enriched who I was while I was becoming that person.

Now, they make me want to listen to Indigo Girls and remember nights driving down A1A, smelling the sea and belting out my pain, my first love beside me, two girls trying to get out, even if we didn’t know out of what. They make me remember what was good about those times, and what was bad about them, and what was good only because there was so much that felt bad.

To say that the Weetzie Bat books are rich, lush, voluptuous, or luminous is to repeat what every other reviewer and blurb has said. Instead, I will say that this book makes me want to find the most flavorful food I can, and a glass of full-bodied, spicy red wine, and play gorgeous music on a really high-end sound system, and lie on silk sheets while I read them, because reading these books will enhance my ability to experience these other things. These are books that remind you of the magic of being alive.

These books are Los Angelene fairy tales, set in an LA that must be in the ’80s and ’90s, but feels like the mythic ’50s or ’60s, or like no time at all. This LA glitters and glimmers through a golden haze. This is not to say that the books ignore what is ugly in the world. Instead, the grime and the crime and the evil are seen, and they hurt, but that hurt fuels the creative process, inspiring the characters to make movies and music, causing them to want to reach out, to change the world.

Weetzie Bat is a teenaged girl living in LA, trying to be fully alive, dressing in feathers and fringe and pink harlequin glasses. Her best friend is Dirk McDonald, the coolest, cutest boy in school, with his shoe-polish-black Mohawk. Dirk’s Grandma Fifi gives Weetzie an old brass lamp. Since this is a fairy tale, what can happen but that a genie emerges to grant her three wishes? She wishes for love for herself, love for Dirk, and “a beautiful little house for us to live in happily ever after.” The wishes do not, of course, come true exactly the way she expects, and what does “happily ever after” mean anyway?

This book has people with strange names (Weetzie Bat is only the start). Meet Duck Drake, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Vixanne Wigg, and Witch Baby. It has odd things, like the coven of witches disguised as a Jayne Mansfield fan club, and the voodoo Barbie dolls. But most importantly, it has resonance and beauty. It’s about wanting love, that dangerous angel. It’s about being afraid of all the bad things in the world. It’s about that shining knife-edge time of life, when everything is big and scary and painful and beautiful and horrible. It’s about wonder.

Witch Baby and Cherokee Bat are the children, respectively, of My Secret Agent Lover Man and Weetzie Bat. They’re raised in Grandma Fifi’s little fairy-tale cottage, by Weetzie and My Secret and Duck and Dirk, as almost-sisters. They’re about as different from each other as they can be. Cherokee is a golden child, blonde and sweet and cheerful. Witch Baby looks like her name, with her snarly black hair and tilty purple eyes, her toes that curl like cashew nuts. She plays the pain game. She snaps candid photographs and cuts out newspaper stories about horrible things. She kicks, bites, hides from those who love her. She doesn’t know who her parents are, doesn’t know who she’s like. She wants to know, “What time are we upon and where do I belong?”

When she visit a shop full of lamps, she begins to find out.

Weetzie Bat was about love and fear and pain, roughly in that order. Witch Baby is about pain and fear and love, very much in that order. Witch Baby is the kind of person who will never feel quite as if she fits in, no matter how much she is loved by those around her. She can only find a way to feel that love by going through her own pain and fear. She drums to get all of it out, snaps pictures to let herself see, and has to see all the awfulness of the world before she can see the beauty.

With Cherokee and Witch Baby’s family out of town making a new movie, Witch Baby begins to bury herself in mud. Only the gift of the wings that Cherokee makes her and the return of Witch Baby’s beloved Angel Juan bring her out of it. But those wings are only the first gift Cherokee has for her friends. For Raphael Chong Jah-Love, she makes goat-haunch pants, to give him the courage to take their band, the Goat Guys, out of the garage and onto the stage. Next, Angel Juan must have the fiery horns, so that he, too, can feel like a real Goat Guy. And Cherokee herself receives a pair of hooves. But is the magic of these gifts, and the social whirl of clubs and parties, too much for the four teens?

Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys is something of a cautionary tale. As much fun as the Goat Guys have, the scene they have entered steals something from them. There are echoes here of “The Red Shoes.” Be careful, oh, be careful what you wish for.

Witch Baby’s pounceable boyfriend Angel Juan has gone to New York, gone to find his own voice, to face his own fears. Witch Baby follows, trying to find him. Accompanied by the ghost of her almost-grandfather, she explores New York, seeing tree spirits, eating grits, and taking pictures of people who seem transformed when seen through the camera’s lens. When she finds Angel Juan, he is in the clutches of someone scarier than any witch in the woods … He has been caught by their fears …

Dealing with fear is a recurring theme in these books, but it’s in Missing Angel Juan that it is most fully explored. This book is not only about dealing with fear, but about facing it, looking it in the eye, and learning to let go of it. It’s about being our own angels, monsters, genies, and demons, about granting our own wishes.

Baby Be-Bop is Dirk’s story. It’s his coming-out story, the story of how he came to terms with his own sexuality, with the loss of his parents, with his life. This is Dirk before he met Weetzie, before and as he got into punk.

Dirk has always known that he was different. He tried hard to fit in, tried to believe that it was just a phase, that he’d grow out of it, but he knew better. So he worked hard to hide it. And then, one day, he met Pup Lambert, and fell in love for the first time …

If you’ve ever read a coming-out story, well, this is one. If you haven’t, this is a story about pain and fear, and the struggle to know whether to fear oneself or the rest of the world. It’s about having to fear the opinions of even those closest to one, about having to hide… and about wanting all of that to stop. It’s about first love, and a few of the ways that can go badly. It’s about holding on, tight, to life and to oneself.

It’s also about listening to the stories of our ancestors, and about finding our own stories. It’s about knowing that each of us has a voice, and a tale to tell.

The Weetzie Bat books are politically correct in the best sense of that much-maligned term. In these pages, you will find gay couples, interracial couples, people with strange family structures, children born out of wedlock, and people suffering from emotional disorders. AIDS, though never named, is much discussed and worried over. All of the people and situations are treated with love and respect.

A warning for those thinking of buying the Weetzie Bat series for young teens: These books contain teens having sex, smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. The descriptions are never graphic, it is made clear that safe sex is practiced, and substance use is not especially condoned.

All five of these books are marvelous, shining reads. They jump off the page and enfold you in their world. They make you want to see life the way they portray it. For teens or adults, these are wonderful novels.

(HarperCollins, 1998)

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Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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