Just a heads up, I talk about some darker stuff than usual in this review, including incarceration/institutionalization, trafficking and homelessness, all with regards to queer and trans youth.
When I was 17, two very important people in my life were committed to psych wards by their parents within a few months of each other. They were queer teenagers like me, struggling and failing to cope with the unbearable pressures of society, parents and peers. One of them had an ultimately healing experience in that inpatient facility. The other did not.
Real life stories of queer and trans teens being institutionalized, often when their parents try to “fix” them or just decide they don’t want to deal with them, are entirely too fucking common. It’s not just mental hospitals; our youth are disproportionally incarcerated too. And that’s the cultural reality that forms the foundation of Soil That Binds Us and its unusual ghost story.
STBU is about a world teeming with dangerous ghosts, and a generation of human mediums who can see and sometimes control them. Children whose medium powers awaken are sent to live at high-security “parafacilities” where they will live until they die, or until humanity finds a cure. Petunia (they/them) and Dandelion (he/him) have lived the past 11 years in code red security, being subjected to daily experimentation because of their terrifying medium powers.
Captured after their 99th escape attempt, the pair are scheduled to be separated, despite Petunia’s unique ability to calm Dandelion’s uncontrolled, emotion-driven ghost swarms. But before that can happen, Petunia is kidnapped from the facility by a nefarious medium named Dees, who wants to use them as the “vessel” for… something?
Soil That Binds Us treads some dark territory, touching on the institutionalization of queer youth, being a young runaway, and being preyed on by traffickers. But it’s not a dark story. It takes these real-life horrors and makes them absurd, laughable. The guards and admins at the parafacility are dorks, easily provoked by our heroes’ wit, while Petunia’s kidnappers are comically incompetent, not just at kidnapping but also at baking. That’s not to say it shies away from showing how awful things are for these characters: Dandelion being told he’s going to be put into an induced coma gives me chills even on a reread. But much like the threat of nuclear war, if you can’t laugh at these things, they’ll fucking consume you.
And besides that, STBU is also a power fantasy about turning the tables on the fuckers who put us in those situations. What if cishets saw queerness as a threat because it WAS a threat? What if your rage or fear could call down razor-sharp spirits to defend you? What if that girl you fell in love with living on the streets gave you fucking pyrokinetic abilities? If STBU triggers my anxieties about these kinds of things, it also soothes them by the same turn.
There’s value in that. The cultural, generational trauma of institutional homophobia and transphobia weighs on all of us, impacting our self-worth, our sense of history, even our health. Stories like this, that recontextualize those specters into something funny, something absurd, something that can be defeated, help lessen that trauma. The less we’re scared of these things, the more prepared we are to fight them. It’s restorative. It’s healing.
Part of the skill of getting out of bed every day is learning to live with horrible things hanging over us. Normies use denial or rationalization to cope – the bad things aren’t real, or they’re far away and won’t affect me. Optimists put on a brave face, confident that things will work out for the best… somehow. Nihilists accept that nothing has inherent meaning or value, so threats become less threatening. Absurdists are like nihilists, except that they have a sense of humor about it. Sure, we’re living in hell and people are always going to be awful, but life is meaningless and we’re all just meat so you might as well have a laugh and a good time before you rot! If you were still somehow wondering, STBU is solidly in the absurdist camp, as am I.
But the flipside of absurdism’s cavalier qualities is this: nothing has inherent meaning, but what matters is what matters to you. And Soil That Binds Us does care, despite the incessant sass of its heroes. It cares about personal and bodily autonomy, about freedom and respect, about friendship and mutual support. It portrays an underground of free mediums who come to each others’ aid without expecting anything in return, except maybe someone to bounce one-liners and pranks off of. It’s serious business to them, even if they’re laughing the whole time.
That’s the kind of queer community that I come from, and that I believe in. In a world where q/t youths’ “family” locks them up, criminalizes them, isolates and others them, drives them from home to homeless shelter to the streets, we need to be there picking up the slack wherever we can. Nothing in life matters, but protecting our kids matters to me. It seems to matter to Soil That Binds Us. I hope, sincerely, that it matters to you.