What Makes Us by Rafi Mittlefehldt

Posted October 1, 2019 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

What Makes Us

What Makes Us

by Rafi Mittlefehldt

Publisher: Candlewick Press on October 15, 2019
Genre: Contemporary, Politics
Target Age Group: Young Adult
Rating: ★★★½

Check out this book on Goodreads

Eran Sharon knows nothing of his father except that he left when Eran was a baby. Now a senior in high school and living with his protective but tight-lipped mother, Eran is a passionate young man deeply interested in social justice and equality. When he learns that the Houston police have launched a program to increase traffic stops, Eran organizes a peaceful protest.

But a heated moment at the protest goes viral, and a reporter connects the Sharon family to a tragedy fifteen years earlier — and asks if Eran is anything like his father, a supposed terrorist. Soon enough, Eran is wondering the same thing, especially when the people he’s gone to school and temple with for years start to look at him differently.


Disclaimer: I received this book for free from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Candlewick Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I ended up liking this book more than I thought I would.

You know, I never really ended up connecting with the characters and the setting didn’t really stand out, but I feel like the story it told was really well done.  It was a little cluttered at times, but it was a good message and what I felt was a realistic – if relatively tame – portrayal of what would happen in this situation.

The world is a complicated place, my loves.  People are not always as nice as you think they will be.  Humanity itself is not as empathetic.  And yet, there are those who are unexpectedly kind.  There are times when the police do their job, despite personal feelings.  I think that What Makes Us did a wonderful job presenting the wide range of emotion – particularly reactions to fear – that we see in the real world.  I won’t say that the setting was aesthetic or beautiful or any of my usual adjectives… but the story felt like it could be real.  In an unsettling way, because it makes you look at the truths of who we are as humans in a individual and global scale, and not all of it is shiny.

Rafi Mittlefehldt is trying to tell two stories.  On a grander scale, Eran’s story discusses the difference between nature and nurture and living in the shadow of a dark and horrible deed.  Eran’s struggles with identity around the truth about his father shape much of the book.  On the other side, we have the smaller story of Jade’s reckoning with her family’s tragic past and the secrets they hide in old photo albums.  Both characters are trying to define their place in the world and find truths that will define them, all while they learn to see their parents in a new light.  It’s an interesting take, especially because the two contrast each other in scale.  However, using the two as foils against each other only almost worked, because a much greater chunk of What Makes Us is spent on Eram’s story. Jade’s story feels a bit like an afterthought, and while reading, I felt detached from it.

The characters themselves are written in such a way that I felt connected to them.  The book came across as more of an interesting case study than an emotional investment, despite the fact that the subject matter itself was incredibly emotionally charged.  In this way I thought all the characters – not just Eran and Jade, but as Declan, Zack, and the various adults – were pretty forgettable.

There’s a bit of politics thrown in here, which given the subject matter, makes sense.  I enjoyed the conversation about racial history and how it affects the present.  However, in some of the aftermath, the aggressive types are a bit stereotyped.  For example, there’s a scene where Eema and Eran are attacked by a man in a Trump hat.  And, listen.  I’m not a Trump supporter myself for my own personal reasons, but I feel like however justified in this choice the author may have felt… by dressing up a “bad guy” in this way, Rafi Mittlefehldt risks alienating a group of potential readers.  Also, by his own definition, the types of people who could benefit most from this type of introspective book.  As a general rule, it’s safer to keep those things vague, and I guess I’m just… disappointed.  It’s easy for us to yell out not to stereotype marginalized people, but I think we also should refrain from stereotyping any group as violent radicals.  What they do to themselves is their own business.

Just wanted to say my piece.  I don’t want to talk about politics here, but because it plays so much into the book, I wanted to bring that up.

What Makes Us is a really interesting book about the social climate.  It talks about a marginalized people (the Jewish community) in a way I don’t think I’ve seen in YA before.  It’s also not preachy, which I always appreciate.  It doesn’t quite have the punch of books like The Hate U Give, but it’s still a good and important story and worth reading.


Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★ 1/2
Plot: ★★★★
Characters: ★★ 1/2
Writing: ★★★ 1/2
Pacing: ★★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★ 1/2
Overall: ★★★ 1/2


What Makes Us will be donated.

While I think this is a well-written book on the topic, it wasn’t intense enough to drive me to want to dig in and read it again.  The lack of emotional attachment to the characters, mostly, is what leads me from wanting to re-read it.  That said, it’s a quick read and a well-done book and definitely worth reading once.


Do you prefer your books to take a realistic view, or to up the drama a little?  I think it depends on the book for me.  With social issue books, I really enjoy having stories that feel real because the news tends to take their own twist and even in fiction… I want real stories.  What about you?

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