By Maddy Lederman
Brooklyn writer Maddy Lederman’s debut novel, EDNA IN THE DESERT, chronicles a technology addicted, Los Angeles teen stranded at her grandparents' cabin in the Mojave Desert without cell phone service, Internet or television.
I worry that kids are spending too much time looking at screens. So many kids are permanently attached to their phones, they don’t look up to say hello or even acknowledge people when they’re speaking to them. Sound familiar? This behavior is so prevalent; it’s become a stereotype. Our human brain evolved in the natural world over many thousands of years. Can staring at a screen for hours on end be good for teenagers who are in such a pivotal period of their brain’s development?
I started writing about this topic in 2009 after I did an interview with a man in Wonder Valley, CA, about thirty miles east of Joshua Tree: a funky, shallow basin on the outer edge of civilization. I lived in the Mojave Desert for several years, and writing for a local magazine, I got to know the region. There are people out there who want nothing to do with the outside world. They don't know what Facebook or Twitter is, and they don’t want to be told about it. This guy had no cell phone service or Internet. It was frustrating to try to set up a meeting, leaving messages on an answering machine and waiting days for a response. I couldn’t help but wonder how a modern, city kid might function if they had to live out there. Some kids are so sophisticated, and every moment of their life is documented, tracked and planned. I became interested in exploring how technology’s changing our culture, and this evolved into a story about a spoiled, Los Angeles thirteen-year-old girl, a girl who had a cell phone to play with before she knew the alphabet. I wanted to take a kid like that and see how she fares without technology, and then combine it with the calming effect of the Mojave Desert's mysterious landscape.
So, who is Edna? She’s a precocious terror with an attitude problem. At thirteen, she’s already been kicked out of a private school. Her status-seeking parents have had a hand in what she’s turned out like, but knowing that doesn’t make Edna any more tolerable to be around. Ineffective therapy leads them to come up with an alternative cure: Edna will spend the summer with her grandparents. Their remote cabin has no cell phone service, Internet, or TV. Edna's determined to rebel, and shortly after she’s dropped off she runs away. This is very dangerous in the desert, and facing the possibility of her own death shakes Edna to the core. Later in the story, she tries to get to know a boy without the help of messaging or social media. It seems impossible, and she wonders what people did in past centuries when they liked each other.
Over the course of a summer without screens, Edna has a slow awakening. What ensues is a modern, coming of age story, as if The Little House on The Prairie met The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.While there are many books about technology and its misuse in an imaginary dystopia or the near future, in some ways this realistic story is more eerie than a fantasy. Having no cell phone is definitely like being on another planet for Edna.