One moment, Dion Wiggins is in the car with his friends. The next, he’s on his way to a therapy appointment with Dr. Catherine Burnette. But instead of focusing on that lost time, Dr. Burnette guides twenty-one-year-old Dion on a journey of self discovery. Under her carefully couched questions, Dion learns to open up to her and to himself about his experiences. Dion comes to grips with the obvious favoritism that his grandmother and legal guardian, Deborah James, showed to Dion’s older brother. He also confronts the complex events that shaped who Deborah became, and ones that informed how she treated Dion. Finally, Dion learns to be independent from crutches like alcohol.
One consistent theme in Dion’s therapy is the idea of God. As Dion digs deeper into himself, he also grapples with reconciling what he finds—feelings of resentment towards his family, being gay—against what’s written in the bible. By the time his insurance-covered therapy sessions run out, Dion gets a few hefty lessons. Then, it’s time for him to take what he has learned and apply it outside the therapist’s sofa. Here, too, Dion has a lot to learn and accept about human relationships…but it’s an important step forward for him.
The Emancipation: Dion’s Baptism is part of what seems to be a two-book series of contemporary fiction. This title features a queer BIPOC main character. There is also an interesting temporal mix that includes episodes from Dion’s past and the present day, but the present day is split between the real world and the world contained within Dr. Burnette’s office. I think McIntyre’s treatment of the present day is one of the best features of the book. After the prologue, which clearly establishes Dion and his friends caroming along in a car, the story resolutely shifts to therapy with Dr. Burnette. Because the car scene is in a prologue, it was easy for me to sort of write it off as an anomaly…and it wasn’t until well after several therapy scenes that we shifted away from Dion for a hot second to some of the supporting cast. It was at that point that I finally caught onto McIntyre’s game and how the world(s) was being built.
One very significant element of the story is Dion’s discovery of his faith. This begins with Dion struggling to reconcile his being gay with a few bible verses that “bluntly say” being gay is a sin. With Dr. Burnette’s help, he is able to resolve this seeming dischord, but still shows deep interest in following the lessons from the religious text. For me, it was interesting to see how Dion applies these teachings to himself. Overall, I got the impression he was supposed to be acting in some “correct” manner. Personally, however, it seemed like he was merely justifying the means to his desired end. Case in point: Dion using his still-living grandmother’s diary to confront his siblings, his uncle, and his own father about how they treated Dion and/or about how Deborah treated them. He doesn’t even think to take the diary to his grandmother until he’s addressed all his own relationships first.
I liked the familiar threads of “troubled young adult finds help in an unlikely place” and “can I be Christian if I’m gay?” well enough. I also enjoyed being challenged to read a semi-allegorical book with deep Christian over-, under-, and mid-tones. That said, I felt like the writing itself lacked narrative polish. Rather than a novel, I felt like the story was being delivered like a screenplay with dialogue and stage directions, but which lacked any visual cues about which characters were speaking. The concept was interesting, but the lack of formatting ruined the execution in my estimation. Take the following scene between Dr. Catherine “Cathy” Burnette and Dion, for example (note that Goliath is a coworker/love interest of Dion’s):
“I can always keep them to myself if you’d prefer.” [sic] Cathy says jokingly.
“Did I say that?”
“Something’s different about you today.”
“If I seem snappier then sorry, I haven’t had sex since the day after me and Goliath broke up…” [sic]
Aside from punctuation issues (as indicated by a [sic]), the prose clearly indicates that Cathy says the first line. Without any other speech attributions, that means Cathy also says the last time. In other words, it looks AND READS like Cathy hasn’t “had sex since the day after breaking up with] Goliath.” I had to re-read that a few times to realize the hard return between the third and fourth lines did not mean a change of speaker, even though that is typically what I would expect with this combination of quotes and hard breaks.
Overall, I think readers who are really invested in stories about BIPOC and stories that grapple with reconciling queerness and King James Christianity (I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I believe that’s the version of the bible that is most often cited today when arguing morality and humanity) will find some value in this story. Some readers may struggle as I did with the formatting.