André Swartley’s 2012 novel Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl won a 2013 Dante Rossetti award for Young Adult (YA) Fiction, and with good reason. It is an engaging story about some important issues not only within the Mennonite community, but within American society at large (throughout this piece I treat the novel explicitly as Mennonite fiction because Swartley is a Mennonite and the book has Mennonite characters, and there is a dearth of annoying “this is who Mennonites are and what they believe” explanations that one finds in some Mennonite fiction [the tiny bit of this that we get is that Mennonites are pacifists, but this explanation is very basic; there is no theological discussion of why Mennonites are pacifists, or that some early Anabaptists weren’t pacifists, and so on], so it seems that Mennonite readers are the book’s intended audience). The book straddles that nebulous line between “Young Adult” fiction and what I suppose one could call grown-up fiction; it’s like John Green for the MYF set (which I mean as a compliment: John Green is fantastic). I am not a fan of the concept of the YA genre (i.e., the books themselves are not the problem, but how they are categorized is) in general because I don’t think it takes teenage readers seriously enough and because oftentimes it seems like it’s only defined by the age of its characters, but whether Swartley intends the book to be YA or not, it’s worth reading by both teens and adults (and perhaps especially adults with teenagers) alike.
Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl is the story of the title character and his classmate from a fictional Mennonite high school in Iowa (perhaps modeled off of Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona), Autumn Springer, as they begin a summer of voluntary service in Germany. Hijinks ensue, there are some compelling action movie-type action scenes as well as some compelling emotional scenes, and the growth that the two main characters go through feels earned and plausible.
Although they do not begin the book as friends, Leon and Autumn develop an immediate kinship with each other as “outcasts” (29). NOTE: THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SOME MILD SPOILERS. Leon is one because he is a stereotypical nerd (which I don’t mean negatively, as I am also one), and Autumn is one because she is the star of a pornographic website that has made her a millionaire (however, N.B., she is not the “fantasy girl” of the title, though in some ways the title fits her character as well). This fact is what makes Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl a refreshing and important addition to the corpus of Mennonite fiction, and especially U.S. Mennonite fiction, which is in general less racy than that from north of the border. Leon’s struggle to confront his own sexism is a journey that many more Mennonites, both men and women, need to take (and the book does a good job describing the double-standard paradox of men [including Mennonite men] simultaneously consuming pornography while condemning the models in it as “sluts” [e.g., 95]), and Autumn’s refusal to feel sorry for her actions and continued lack of shame about her body is an essential corrective to traditional Mennonite/societal attitudes toward the physical in general and the erotic in particular. The novel’s discussion of disability is another element that has received too little attention in Mennonite literature. END OF SPOILER ALERT.
The novel contains a few deficiencies, mostly of a factual nature. People from Lancaster, Pennsylvania do not say “yous [sic]” like some people do in other parts of the state (33). The idea of one of the American characters, Hat, being allowed to teach soccer to German children old enough to be playing on “varsity” and “junior varsity” teams is highly implausible (36). It is likewise implausible that Leon, who has suffered from extreme chronic arthritis for two years, would not have tried acupuncture before it is introduced to him in the book. We are given the explanation that his mother felt it was too “unorthodox” for him to try (156), but this explanation comes too late in the narrative and does not seem to fit with her willingness to let him play video games constantly (in other words, she is your basic mainstream, reasonably worldly Mennonite, and while there is certainly some distrust of nontraditional medicine in this group I do not think it would be enough to justify how heartless she comes off as being for denying Leon acupuncture after either he or a doctor first suggests it). Finally, the novel’s ending is much, much too neat (this is often the case in Young Adult fiction, but still), which is frustrating because one of the book’s strengths is its tackling of issues with no easy answers, but then the easy answers occur anyway.
However, despite these few issues Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl is well worth reading. The characters and the issues they deal with are compelling enough that the fact there is a sequel coming out this October is a welcome one.