Disclaimer: Some of the links in my review for The Names We Take by Trace Kerr are affiliate links. If you click them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. The decision of whether or not to buy something is completely up to you.
A version of this book review first appeared in The Lesbrary.
This young adult dystopian novel takes place in Spokane, Washington after an epidemic called the One Mile Cough wipes out a huge chunk of the population. Pip, the protagonist, is an intersex trans girl just trying to survive. But a group of bounty hunters has a different idea. They seek women and children to gather for a supposed safe haven called Thistle Hill Orchard. When Pip takes charge of a girl named Iris, she must keep the child safe and do what’s best for their newfound family.
Plot of The Names We Take
The novel moves at a good pace as the action keeps its momentum going forward while the moments of peace allow the characters and reader to breathe. Kerr is adept at unraveling details about the characters throughout the narrative without falling into info dumps. While the character development shines, the plot development fell a bit by the wayside.
The story proposes that a plague called the One Mile Cough hit Spokane’s population, but it doesn’t get much page time other than to say that it caused this post-apocalypse world. The story never details the disease’s origins or spread, and the reader doesn’t know for sure how far it hit. You assume the whole United States at least as the citizens of Spokane have been left to fend for themselves. But the narration never confirms that guess.
Another delightful aspect of the novel is its inclusion of periods. Post-apocalypse stories often stay away from the subject of menstruation, but more stories should tackle it, as people who menstruate continue to exist even after the world as we know it ends. Kerr doesn’t shy away from the topic and details how Pip gathers pads and teaches Iris what to do when the young girl gets her first period.
As Pip goes through the new world after civilization has crumbled, she faces a great deal of the same prejudice and bigotry as she did before the world ended. People misgender her constantly and she experiences violence at the hands of men. It’s a brutal pill to swallow as she continues to assert her existence as her true self, fighting narrow-minded bigots and righteous zealots who feel they know best for her.
But Pip finds reprieve in her relationships. Whistler, a survivor of One Mile Cough with PTSD is her protector. Iris becomes the little sister she must guide and protect. Fly is the beautiful girl she falls for in the middle of the chaos around her. The protagonist and supporting cast dynamics make this book such a fascinating read. It’s the story of the family forged when people take a stand and fight for who they are.
The most interesting development in Pip’s character is her demeanor toward Iris. It’s clear that Pip doesn’t lack compassion, but she does lack patience. Running around with a twelve-year-old girl prone to pouting and eye-rolling, even in the apocalypse, teaches her a great deal of patience and love.
Gender and Identity
The language around Pip’s gender and sexual orientation is careful and precise. It’s explained that she was born intersex and that her parents chose male for her at birth, but when she hits puberty and gets her first period, that’s when she finds out she was born intersex. As she grows she becomes sure she wants to be a girl and takes steps to make her body appear as her true identity.
Throughout the novel the audience sees her struggling when she’s called a boy or questioned about her gender. She clearly still holds insecurity and body dysmorphia over her masculine appearance in many ways. But Iris accepts Pip as a girl, even if the others in Thistle Hill don’t. Pip also reveals she is bisexual when she starts developing a crush on Fly. Her feelings fill her with fear, but Fly assures her it’s okay, as does another friend at the sanctuary.
Rating for The Names We Take
Overall, The Names We Take is a satisfying read with rich character dynamics that keep you hooked. The plot needed a little more world-building to understand their environment, but it had enough intrigue to keep me reading.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
You can buy The Names We Take here.