Friendship and other (non)human relationships in Under My Skin by Charles de Lint

Under My Skin is the first in Charles de Lint’s Wildlings series, and it starts off with a bang.

(Two covers. I like the dreads in the first, but the animal-layer is weird, as is Josh’s pose.)

Under My Skin is narrated alternately by best friends Josh Saunders and Marina Lopez. The setting is modern-day Santa Feliz, USA*, a town running rife with gossip, controversy, and heavy-handed reactions to a recent problem.

It’s been a little over six months now, and still no one has any idea why some kids change while most don’t, or why it’s only happening to kids in Santa Feliz. All anybody living here realy knows is that every otehr week or so, some poor kid or another turns into a shape-changing freak. At least, that’s what my buddy Dillon calls them.

Then I see my high school picture on the TV and I realize this story’s about me. About what happened yesterday after Steve hits me. I have to face the facts.

I’m one of those shape-changing freaks now.

Josh discovers that he is a Wildling, specifically a mountain lion, when his mother’s jerk of a boyfriend, Steve, tries to beat him up. Josh is bold and trusting enough to tell his two best friends, Marina and Desmond, an enormous act of trust that nevertheless puts a severe strain on their friendship.

But first, about their friendship. I really liked the emphasis both narrators put on their relationship. When Marina walks in on a cop interviewing Josh’s mom, she is confident:

“If [Josh] had other plans, I’d know. He’d never lie to me.”

Josh’s perspective a few pages later confirms this. He knows not to admit that he is a Wildling to a cop, but lying to the police with his best friend right there wouldn’t work:

I’m glad that Marina headed off to school. I wouldn’t be a very good liar around her. We’re so tight, she’d see right through me.

The emphasis the three friends, and especially Josh, place on honesty with each other is part of what has bound them so closely that Josh can’t imagine not telling them his new secret. But this same honesty causes friction and nearly ends their friendship as well: Desmond can’t keep his mouth shut, even about a secret as dangerous as this one; and Marina keep secrets too well – she, too, is a Wildling, and has been for five months. When Josh comes out about his animal skin, Marina knows that he will see her not having told as betrayal. Nice degrees of honesty, eh? Josh tells, Desmond tells too much, and Marina doesn’t tell enough.

There’s also a judicious layering of reaction to Wildlings. Josh had considered the Wildlings freaks before he became one; when he does, he just wants to go back to being “normal” – without having to worry about being tailed by the FBI, shot by who-knows-who, or beat up by prejudiced classmates. Marina loves being a Wildling, and, well aware of the dangers of being part of an unknown minority group, runs a blog that helps other Wildlings and fosters a warm online community of support and good advice. Desmond, the non-Wildling of the three, can’t see beyond how totally awesome it is to be able to turn into a mountain lion to the danger surrounding Wildlings on all fronts.

Have I mentioned that, beyond how fun a read this was, how much I admired the points about prejudice and human relationships? Because at heart, Under My Skin is all about human relationships, and not in the abstract but in concrete, breathing, messy life: the friendship between Josh, Marina, and Desmond, each of whom has a distinct take on their situation and each of whom is earnestly committed to the other two; the undefinable romance between Elzie, another Wildling, and Josh; the growing alliance between Elzie and Marina; the tension between Wildlings and police and FBI; the tension between old and new Wildlings and the factions they fall into; the schoolground politics of who talks with whom, and who has connections to outside powers; the wariness non-gang teens have toward Ocean Avers members; the surprisingly warm relationship the slightly-frightening Chaingang (really Theodore Washington, brother of the Ocean Avers boss) offers Marina and Josh; the jealousy that startles characters with its emergence; the tentative and half- or not-at-all-returned crushes between various peoples; the determination of good (if also scary) FBI agents to maintain the law, even if they don’t like or trust the people they defend; the relationship between mentor and pupil; the love between single parents and their children.

And that’s just a start.

The characters are diverse, naturally. Here’s a snippet from when Josh runs off after discovering he’s a Wildling.

I look up to see a boy sitting on his haunches a few yards away. He’s around my age with dark skin and darker hair, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, runners and a hoodie. When he sees I’m awake, he throws a bundle of something at me. I catch it without thinking.

“First thing you learn,” he says, “is to bring your clothes with you. It’s not hard. You just have to remember what you’re wearing and make sure you’re still wearing it when you change back.”

“What?”

“Get dressed. I don’t get any thrill looking at your skinny black ass.”

Josh is half-black, half-white. Marina is Hispanic, although she’s been brought up mostly divorced from her culture. Desmond is white. Elzie is white. Chaingang is black. Josh’s mom, Naomi (another really cool relationship here), is black. The ancient (non-changed) Wildlings are indeterminate, but at least one of them seems to be First Nations and Hispanic.

Lots of action, lots of humans (and, possibly, partly non-humans**) trying to figure each other out and survive as best they can. It is hard at first to pick out the villains, as most characters are ambiguous (some way more than others), but the true villains are terrifyingly evil, and the social-political situation could be pulled from current headlines.

I look forward to reading the second Wildlings novel, Over My Head.

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 (image source)

* I can’t find Santa Feliz on a map, so I think it is fictional. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

** Depending on what you believe about Wildlings. The novel gives a pretty strong suggestion, which it backs up with science – but I won’t spoil that.