In Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, women’s preoccupation with hair (especially blonde hair) plays a major role. But there is, of course, something deeper going on here. And it is through the protagonist Hazel Hayes that these deeper meanings are explored.
Hazel is a somewhat innocent yet resourceful young woman working on her dissertation in aesthetology, or the study of looking, at New York University when a viral pandemic hits the city.
The pandemic has a global reach, and it comes to be known as The Blonde Fury because it afflicts only women (of any race, age, and background) who have blonde hair, dyed or natural. Once afflicted, the women become enraged and viciously attack bystanders within their reach. The frightening thing is that you cannot tell if a woman (or a girl child) has this disease until she explodes into violence.
Hazel is a witness to such an attack on the New York subway. At the time she doesn’t know about the pandemic. In the days following, reports of other attacks make the news, and Hazel begins to see a pattern of the outbreak that is taking place around her. In studying a map of the city, she comes to realize that she is living in the centre of New York’s afflicted neighbourhoods.
She then has to decide what she should do next: leave NYC, or stay? A decision compounded by the fact that she is now pregnant; an outcome of an affair with her thesis supervisor.
Fear & Survival amidst the Pandemic
What Emily Schultz captures so well in her novel is the ever-so-subtle fear seeping in as the pandemic unfolds. The fear of a specific group of people (blondes), the fear of dealing with the afflicted, the fear that comes from witnessing how the authorities deal with the afflicted and with those suspected of being afflicted.
Hazel experiences the brunt of authority only too well when she crosses the border into Canada and is quarantined at a Women’s Entry and Evaluation Centre (WEE) in Hamilton for eight weeks. Quarantine centres have sprouted up around the country, and this one is an elementary school converted into a series of rooms to house the dozens of women being held there. At one point, Hazel attempts an escape but, when caught, is placed in isolation, in a broom closet set up with a cot for sleeping. When alone there in the dark, she asks, “What’s going to happen to me?”
It is this sense of isolation and disconnection from others that weaves itself through the story. How do you deal with others when panic takes hold? Or when fear reshapes your perceptions of trust and connection? How do you hold on to values of compassion, security, and love? How can you save yourself?
The Blondes makes us ask these questions. It makes us wonder who we might turn to for help. To handle her situation, Hazel digs deep into her resourcefulness and in doing so give us a glimpse of what we might do when the world we know is changing around us so quickly.
I very much enjoyed reading The Blondes. And I grew very fond of Hazel. Her engaging and authentic voice brings you into her experience of surviving amidst the fury.