Content warning: self harm, microaggressions
Ambition, grief, and pent up feelings describe many spheres of human experience, yet there is perhaps no time in life where this chaotic combination is harder to express than in middle school. In the Key of Us is a novel set during the main characters’ summer in their thirteenth year—the angstiest of times. With each of the aforementioned emotions guiding the trajectory of their relationships with each other, their guardians, their peers, and their teachers, the author Mariama J. Lockington skillfully covers a lot of ground in many varied lanes.
Andi is a girl grappling with the loss of the most important person in her life, her mother. A few months prior to where the story begins, Andi’s mother dies in a car accident on her way to pick Andi up from school. Racked with regret for what she sees as her hand in her mother’s death, Andi suffers from debilitating anxiety attacks and feels disconnected from all of the things she once enjoyed about her life. Now that she lives with her aunt, she finds herself in a weird nexus where she feels unwanted despite seeing all of the ways her aunt and uncle work to show her that she has a place with them. Her sense of displacement grows worse when they share the news of her aunt’s pregnancy and push her to apply to a prestigious music camp for her summer. Though she was able to push through an audition tape for the camp that gained her entry, Andi’s loss of her mother has also set her adrift from their shared love of music. So when she makes it to the highly renowned music camp in woodsy Michigan, she is less than thrilled and fearful that she won’t be able to live up to expectations. It is only after she meets an energetic new friend who helps her to get out of her own head and deal with the aggressively ambitious energies from the girls in her cabin, that Andi finds space to unwind. Unfortunately, one of her passively aggressive cabin mates shares her bunk and happens to be the only other Black girl at camp—Zora.
Zora is a music camp veteran, but that doesn’t mean she has it all under control. In fact, control is the very thing she seeks this summer. After a traumatic experience during dance class when she was eight years old, her mother has forbidden any continued involvement in the medium. Instead Zora has been pushed to show her talents with the flute, with her parents expecting nothing less than her becoming and maintaining first chair throughout the camp. The pressure hit its peak shortly before camp started when she came out to her best friend only to have her affections rebuffed with no hopes for reconciliation during their months apart. As such, Zora builds a facade of accomplishment while privately falling into self harm and reacting harshly to those around her, including Andi, who she has just met. Though her misunderstandings with Andi leave both with feelings of animosity throughout their time together, they find that they work well together and even unlock some of the pent up feelings they’ve tried to deny. As the camp continues, they explore what personal success looks like, how acceptance of the full brunt of emotions in relationships aids grief and expectations, and how life seems a lot better when you let loose.
Lockington’s thoughtful consideration of how it feels to be in the time of life where emotional shields against rejection and loss guide the shaping of personality permeates the story. I was immediately drawn into the character arcs and deeply reminded of all of the emotions my tween self once carried. I most appreciated that the growth of each character was just as intertwined with how they interacted with each other, their families, and close friends. Don’t get me wrong, a good romance has its place in personal growth, but given the intensity of focus put on youth to succeed early and often, there was a level of resonance the balance between relationships brings. Thirteen-year-old me would have greatly benefited from this book and present day me has walked away from the story with the sense of healing.