Dyeing To Be With You, by Sisco Polaris – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Dyeing To Be With You, by Sisco Polaris. Illustrated by Edesk.
North Charleston, SC, CreateSpace, December 2015, trade paperback $12.00 (193 pages), Kindle $4.00.
Dyeing To Be With You is a teenage m/m romance, full of adolescent angst. Lucas, just entering Calder High at 14 years old, was the only polar bear there. The other students, all black bears, bullied him viciously, particularly the sadistic Kalvin. Lucas was a bit of a crybaby, so he took it more emotionally than he should have. He was very happy when his father was transferred to Riker’s Bay and his family left Calder.
But now his father has been transferred back to Calder, and Lucas faces returning to Calder High and its bullies for his final year of high school. He’s grown a lot while he was away – he’s 17 and nearly seven feet tall now — but he’s still emotionally weak, too dependent on his older sister Anna.
“Anna’s baby brother – that’s who he had been all his life. Not that it was a bad thing to have a big sister looking out for him. She had always helped him when he needed it. Of course, she had gotten him into a lot of trouble, too. A baby brother was a fine scapegoat when you work together to steal cookies, or (more lately) when you are sneaking out to go on a date, and you need someone to cover for you with your parents.” (p. 13)
When Anna gets a trainee job at a beauty salon, Lucas gets the wild idea of dyeing his fur and passing as a black bear during his final high school year. Anna scoffs at first, then takes it as a challenge.
‘Yeah sure, a new seven foot tall black bear. Besides, you wouldn’t just need black.’ In spite of herself, the female bear’s mind was working it over. ‘They have light brown on their muzzles.’
‘Well, I’m sure you have light brown dye at the salon,’ the male bear replied, a sly smile coming to his face. It was a crazy, insane idea, and he knew it, but it could work. After all, it was just a year, and then he would be out. He could let the dye fade out naturally, or even take a dip in some dye removal solution.” (p. 13)
They are abetted by Anna’s lively superior, Mrs. Nesbitt, who helps dye Lucas’ fur.
“‘Oh my, what a big lad you are, and so polite, too!’ the black bear said with genuine cheer in her voice as she put the brush down and walked over. She touched his shoulders and gave him a close look. The young bear blushed deeply as he was inspected. ‘Ah, a fine strapping young man. Of course, size never stopped bullies; they don’t have to hurt you to hurt you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will hurt your spirit.’” (p. 28)
Lucas needs to be dyed all over. He hadn’t realized what that meant.
“He yelped as his sister suddenly ran a comb down his sheath. Nobody had touched him there as long as he could remember. Despite his discomfort at his own sister’s touch, his teenage body tingled at the attention.” (p. 31)
After a tense confrontation with his reluctant parents, Lucas gets permission to go ahead with his plan. Lucas is so keyed up on his first day at Calder High that he almost sabotages himself, especially when he finds his locker is near that of a panda named Charlie who turns out to be a friend of Kalvin. And the upbeat Kalvin determines to welcome Lucas (or “Luke”) to the school. Even Kalvin’s most well-meaning efforts, such as his attempt to get Lucas onto the school baseball team, pose hazards.
“‘Great,’ Lucas muttered half-heartedly. His plan to lay low and sail smoothly through his last year had not factored in participation in any team sports. It wasn’t so much the playing that he was worried about, or even the rather poor attitude of the team’s captain. His mother would insist on coming to every game he played and try to drag the entire family with her. Explaining why there was a family of polar bears cheering him on, oh so very loudly, would be difficult.” (pgs. 89-90)
Lucas finds out that Kalvin had a reasonable justification to be cruel to him when they were younger, which he’s matured out of. During his own growth from 14 to 17, Lucas’ sexuality has also developed. He’s turned out to be gay, which he hasn’t come out to anybody about yet. And guess who he is attracted to?
“Halfway through the first movie, the cola finally took its revenge on Kalvin. The warmth was suddenly gone as the black bear stood up whispering urgently, ‘I gotta pee.’ Lucas leaned back in his chair so Kal could slide passed [sic.] him. For a wonderful moment, his friend’s pert rump became his entire world. The soft, tempting mounds mere inches from his face, a strong hint of his musk filling the bear’s nose. He could all but taste the beautiful posterior taunting him, and the urge to lean forward and grab the delicious black mountains with both paws and pull the black bear down onto his lap was so strong he felt his paws move.” (p. 114)
Also guess how Kalvin responds to this. The scenes where they get together – at least two whole chapters — are definitely NSFW.
The questions remaining to Lucas are how to tell his family that he’s gay, and how to tell Kalvin that he’s really that geeky polar bear wimp that he used to torment. Like I said, adolescent angst — pages of it. But at the end, a happier finale than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Dyeing To Be With You (cover by Edesk) is a funny-animal novel. There’s no reason why the characters couldn’t be humans instead of bears. Polaris handles the description of them as brown bears and polar bears (and Charlie as a panda – he’s Asiatic-American) nicely, but he undercuts this by too many real human references. There are real video games like Battlefield and Call of Duty; baseball teams like the Yankees; states like Alaska and Texas; movies like the Back to the Future trilogy; candy like Snickers and M&Ms. But if you don’t mind a shallow furriness, some poor proofreading amidst the generally good writing, lots of realistic teen male dialogue with four-letter words, and a lot of explicit teenage gay sex in the last half of the novel, you’ll enjoy Dyeing To Be With You.
I have no objection to Mr. Patten having an opinion regarding any work, but his hypocrisy needs to be called out. He has stated, and often, that various stories have “no reason why the characters couldn’t be human.” If he truly believed this, then the only stories of which he would approve would be transformation tales (human to furry, or vice versa) and stories in which there is conflict between human and anthromorph. Since Mr. Patten has rave revews of popular works in the fandom which do not fall into these categories, I must question the alleged “fariness” of his reviews, here and elsewhere.
In the book “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin (published 1961), a white man went through a lengthy process involving melanin enhancement and ultraviolet tanning in order to turn his white skin black, to experience how people in the southern United States treated him. I don’t imagine that Mr. Patten presumes that a human teen would have access to this sort of treatment, and therefore his comment that “there’s no reason why the characters [in this book] couldn’t be humans instead of bears” is utterly untrue. Dying one’s fur is arduous, but doable, in the context.
Further, Mr. Patten’s assertion that author Sisco Polaris “undercuts this [good description of the bears in the story] by too many real human references” is ridiculous on its face. Without “human references,” the story would be incomprehensible; a human reader must have something to relate to, or the tale is beyond any ability to empathize with the characters and situations. The “human references” in any furry story may range from minor to sweeping, and perhaps Mr. Patten’s objection to the use of modern, recognizable video game titles and snack bars is merely his own prejudice, to which he has a right. However, to condemn this story for (in essence) being “too human” is ludicrous in the extreme.
It appears to be Mr. Patten’s shtick to praise with faint damns, telling readers that they might enjoy a book “if you don’t mind a shallow furriness,” etc. It has been a pattern that he has used on all but works by “pop-furs” whose stories violate Mr. Patten’s standards, yet he has praised them beyond all reason. His opinion is his own, and he has expressed it. However, his hypocritical and self-conflicting analysis should render his review(s) worthless to the thinking public. I would advise readers to consider this book’s good story, interesting characterization, highly-relatable “teenage angst” (as Mr. Patten put it), elements of classic literary farce dating back to Ovid, and satisfying ending to be a better guide to their decison to read it.
I haven’t read this book. I’m aware that there is a sort of general anthropomorphism scale – from “funny animal” as Fred calls it (basically, people with tails) to Watership Down (actual animals, who happen to talk and share human aspects like religion.)
I don’t mind hearing “the furry scale” as part of a review. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with writing quality or whether something deserves to be read, it’s just a guide for those who may be seeking particular genre elements.
It’s probably subjective to grade where on that scale something lands. In some cases (popular works where it isn’t mentioned) it might barely come to mind because there are many broad qualities to look at. In others (fandom fiction that comes from a really specific approach) it might jump out as the whole reason for the story.
“Furry” is a really broad and vague label, so it’s natural to have subjective judgements about it that aren’t the same from book to book. I don’t think a reviewer shouldn’t do it – I would just keep in mind that every reviewer can have unique taste. Personally I never require a reviewer to be “objective” to appreciate what they say.
Yes, it would be impossible to rewrite this as a human story if it needed to be about a lone black teenager trying to pass as white. Or about a lone white teenager trying to pass as black. But easy (in my opinion) if all the teens were the same race and the others were tormenting Lucas just because he was obviously a fall guy; a crybaby. I don’t see the racial aspect of the story to be necessary at all.
If the story is about Lucas’ family and Mrs. Nesbitt being a different race than everyone else, then I plead denseness. I didn’t recognize this aspect at all. To me, everyone in the novel seems to be the same race, and Lucas just seems to be a natural target for being bullied because he so obviously reacts to it. Teens in school usually have a social pecking order without any regard to race. There is the most popular of the crowd at the top and the wallflower or geek at the bottom. From that aspect, it should be possible for Lucas at 17 to pass as Luke by showing primarily a more confident personality. His physical appearance is comparatively incidental – changing his hair color might be enough. Yes, a human teen would not have access to the sort of treatment that Griffin went through; that is a major reason why the story doesn’t clearly enough (to me) make it obvious that Lucas and his family are visually distinct from the majority.
I agree that it would be impossible to rewrite “Dyeing To Meet You” as an all-human story if you keep Lucas and his family as blacks with Lucas trying to pass as white. But as I say, this racial aspect didn’t occur to me because it seems so far-fetched. The novel was to me just about an emotionally-weak 14-year-old showing more confidence as a 17-year-old — I was dense to the fur color being a metaphor for actual skin color.
Actually, Mr. Black Wolf and I seem to agree that “Dyeing To Be With You” has a good story, interesting characterization, highly-relatable teenage angst, and a satisfying ending. I still think that the author should have made up fictional video games, movies, candies, etc. to go with the anthro bear cast instead of using real ones; the mixture – to me – is jarring and slightly undermines the anthro world.