Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

By Tyler M. Michaud

The following doesn’t contain any spoilers

Originally published in 2009 by first-time American author Nick Burd, The Vast Fields of Ordinary is classified as a work of LGBT Young Adult Fiction. Since its release the book has had impressive success. It won the Stonewall Book Award in the Children’s and Young Adult Literature category. It was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult literature. It was added to Booklist’s 2010 Rainbow List. The New York Times listed it as one of the most notable books of 2009. And, this captivating novel earned Burd a place on the “OUT 100,” which pays tribute to people that make significant contributions to the LGBTQ community and culture [1]. TheVastFieldsofOrdinary

The novel explores the summer after Dade Hamilton graduates from high school—his last summer at home. Dade’s life appears to be ordinary from the outside. He works at the local grocery store, Food World. His family lives in an up-and-coming, wealthy suburban neighborhood. He’s socially awkward and the target of insults from the cool crowd, but his “boyfriend,” Pablo, is popular, so ideally he’d be safe.

Except, things aren’t as they appear. In fact, the more we learn about this suburbia, the more we realize that life beneath the surface is quite complicated. Dade is a closeted homosexual. His parents are on the brink of divorce. His job at Food World is anything but the stereotypical low-stress, part-time job. The cherry on top? Pablo refuses to openly acknowledge their relationship, probably because he’s dating one of the popular girls, which explains why the in-crowd targets Dade. 

The Vast Fields of Ordinary is a gay coming-of-age novel. Over the course of the summer, Dade comes to terms with the different layers of himself and the world around him. He falls in love with the dreamy Alex Kincaid, who teaches him to live in the moment and for himself. The “troubled girl” from down the block, Lucy, turns out to be wholly wonderful, and the best friend which Dade never knew he needed. By the end, Dade figures out that life is hard, but it’s also elastic; it’s able to bounce back.

This is my second time reading it. The first time was my sophomore year of high school. At that time, I considered it to be the novel to trump all novels. For years, everything I read was compared to it. To say I loved this book would be an understatement. Now, as a senior in college (~five years later), I decided to reread it, although I feared that, in my mind, I’d built it up too much. Plus, the thought lingered, what if I hated it? Alas, I really, really liked it. But, it’s not the perfect novel younger me labeled it.

My major thoughts are as follows (I’ll spare you a word for word review of the novel.): First, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Dade. Although, in my opinion, he’s not the most dynamic character, he’s true. His voice is unique and convincing. He struggles with love, friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, all of which are universal issues. Most interestingly, I noticed that rereading this book has changed my perspective on pretty much every character. Dade, for example, is incredibly self-involved (Did I not notice this because as a teenager I was the same way? Oops. Sorry, Dad.) It’s not that he’s unkind, but he views everyone’s problems as they relate to his own.

Alex, the love interest, is a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG), if you will. The MPDG is a common trope in pop culture: 

Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’. MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up. [2]

However, this is arguably why Alex is enchanting. Actually, when I start to think about him realistically, I find that his charm completely melts away, exposing something quite ugly. Yet another way my perspective has changed—younger me loved Alex.

Pablo is by far the most dynamic and unique character in this novel. I used to hate him, although I’ve always been able to sympathize with him. However, now he’s my favorite character. Throughout the novel Pablo changes from the selfish guy that uses Dade to explore his sexuality, to somebody broken and aching for a fix, and, finally, to a person that’s all too real—however terrible this may be. The way Burd weaves Pablo into the story is interesting, because Pablo isn’t overly present in the action itself; rather, he’s ever-present in Dade’s thoughts.

Early-on in the novel, the secondary plot is introduced. A girl with autism goes missing from her yard. This story arch is threaded throughout the whole book. It’s done in a way that make me believe that it serves a larger purpose than how I currently understand it, that being it adds action to a social-based story. I did and still feel like I’m missing something. Maybe reading it a third time will help? 

Burd’s writing is beautiful, eloquent, and sincere, and yet unforced. It’s capable of tugging at your heartstrings and awakening your mind without the gratuitous voice some authors wield:

“I stopped wanting to float away from my life, because in the end my life was all I had. I’d walk the Fairmont campus and look up to the sky and I wouldn’t see myself drifting off like some lost balloon. Instead I saw the size of the world and found comfort in its hugeness. I’d think back to those times when I felt like everything was closing in on me, those times when I thought I was stuck, and I realized that I was wrong. There is always hope. The world is vast and meant for wandering. There is always somewhere else to go.” [3]

Just like the first time I read it, after finishing the novel I had to separate myself from the book to calm down. I would recommend this book to anybody interested in realistic young adult fiction, people interested in LGBT issues, and people that want a story that is more driven by character than plot. It doesn’t surprise me that it made such an impact in the YA and LGBT communities—it’s exquisite.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Nick Burd

309 pages. Published by Dial.

Hardcover: $12.67, paperback: $6.51 (amazon.com)


1. “The Vast Fields of Ordinary.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

2. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

3. “Nick Burd Quotes.” Goodreads: Nick Burd Quotes (Author of The Vast Fields of Ordinary). Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

Alumni Interview: Ian Davis

Tell us about yourself.: IMG_0785

I graduated from UMF in December 2011, having spent a year at Bennington College and then two and a half at Farmington. I’m now working on being a student in the English PhD program at Princeton University, where I study twentieth-century literature and theory. I live in Princeton with a sweet polar bear of a dog named Olivia.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

I remember meeting Dan Gunn for the first time. I was one of three new advisees; he asked us why we wanted to study literature, listened carefully, responded thoughtfully, and then took us out to ice cream. I remember midnight pie at the Irving out toward Wilton. I remember going down to the river with friends on spring nights. Also, there were books: Joyce and Eliot with Dan Gunn, Thoreau and Dickinson with Kristen Case, Cervantes with Eric Brown; and all the others, all the others. And once, during a test, I got real excited realizing there is no difference between form and matter.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

I haven’t studied English at many other places, and am not sure if I have any authority on that. What made it wonderful for me, though, I could say that ––– the professors are some of the most brilliant, caring, and dedicated people I’ve known. The rest of my life will be in their wake, in their debt.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

Oh, that’s tough; the classroom leaks too much to say things like that. It gets you better at everything, probably: reading, decisions, courage, sass, writing, dying, breadbaking. About once a month I learn responsibility again and pay bills and hand in paperwork, which I never did before, so. I’m pretty sure Djuna Barnes taught me how to love better. I’m also a little better at punning; not much, but enough to get by, which is good.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

Try to give less advice and more listening. Listen to Sylvan Esso’s self-titled new album. Read Walden with an open heart. Sharing is caring. Be hip, but in a nice way. Try to remember what George Eliot wrote to Charles Bray: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” Also, try not to take too much advice.

I don’t have any concrete plans. The dog seems pretty convinced we have a lot more walks to take, so probably that. I’d like to teach, too, and write things, a few more things. I wouldn’t mind being useful either, but who knows about that.

Alumni Interview: Mike Minchin

Tell us about yourself.: unnamed-300x225

I graduated from UMF in 2006. Since Graduation I’ve worked full time as a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer, for three years at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and for the past five years at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vermont. In January 2014, I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in writing. My fiction has recently received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. Currently, I’m at work on short stories and essays. I live in Bethel, Vermont with my wife and two children.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

I enjoyed my time at UMF a great deal, so it’s hard to pick out just a few moments. But I recall taking a Cuban literature class that gave me a new perspective on a culture I knew little about. I have to say, that was a really fun class. The discussions we had were often stimulating and insightful, and the stories and novels we read changed the way I thought about Cuba. I have a lot of great memories of skiing with friends at Saddleback and Sugarloaf, fishing on the Sandy River, hiking in the Bigelows, among other adventures.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

What struck me about the English program at UMF was that I always felt like I had ample opportunities to engage with other students, to participate in class, to discuss literature and really be part of the ongoing conversation. I enjoyed the small class sizes and the way we would sometimes sit around the perimeter of the room, facing each other, going back and forth with questions or comments. I like that small-group feel so much more than sitting in a large lecture hall. In another sense, what is remarkable about UMF is that you have a quality university situated in one of the most desirable spots in Maine in terms of outdoor recreation. I felt lucky to be studying just a short drive from the Bigelow Preserve and Saddleback Mountain, among other places.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

My time at UMF has helped me in many ways. As a practical example, the skills I developed as an English major—analyzing and interpreting writing, doing research, forming my ideas into thoughtful essays—helped me a great deal when I was working on my MFA degree, which involved not only creative writing but substantial amounts of critical essay writing and research. In my daily work at the hospital, I’m communicating all the time with colleagues, usually in writing, via e-mail. I’ve written letters designed to help our department move forward in one area or another, and often these letters are of the persuasive nature, so I need to back up my arguments in the most concise and articulate ways possible.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

For current students: First, I hope you consider it a privilege to be a UMF student. It’s such a great opportunity, and it can lead you almost anywhere. As an undergraduate, you have a lot of helpful people and resources available to you. My advice: take advantage of those resources as much as possible. For example, even if you haven’t considered graduate school, I would encourage you to do some research into graduate studies as early as freshman year. You might stumble upon something that really interests you. There are alternative ways to pay for graduate school in some cases, so don’t let the cost stop you from at least seeing what’s out there. Talk to your professors, ask questions. Graduate school for me was about exploring what I was passionate about, and I couldn’t have done it without my undergraduate degree.

For prospective students: I can only tell you that my experience at UMF was a positive one. I’ve attended several colleges and universities, both undergraduate and graduate, and UMF was one of the best. Farmington is a great place to live and study if you want to avoid the bustle of city life. In my case, I had the chance to graduate from a private college, but I’m glad I chose UMF for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But beyond all that, I’m in no way convinced that spending four times the money (or more) on tuition at a private college equates to a better education.

What type of students should consider majoring in English at UMF?:

You know, I think the English major covers so much ground, that anyone interested in a well-rounded education should consider English as a major. But certainly anyone who has a particular interest in the written word, or the spoken word, or just a love of language itself, in all its different forms, should consider majoring in English. It’s a luxury and simply enriching to immerse oneself in literature, to learn about people from all over the world. In my mind, education is not just about mastering a certain set of skills. There are certainly tangible skills that come from studying English, but I think the education alone, the time you spend thinking and conversing and writing about works of literature, is worth a great deal. Practically speaking, the English degree is useful simply because there are so many careers that require careful attention to language and the ability to think critically and write competently.

What do you see yourself doing in the future (10 – 20 years)?:

In the next few years, I’m hoping to develop a writing workshop here in Vermont, possibly at my town library. This would likely be a free workshop to participants and voluntary on my part, and I think it will be a lot of fun. In the long run, I could see myself teaching in a more formal setting. But, for now, my primary focus is creating new works of fiction and new essays on the craft of writing.

Alumni Interview: Hayden Golden

Hayden Golden

Tell us about yourself.: 

I graduated in 2008 and I currently work as an Organizer for the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan representing unionized adjuncts and graduate students. I help them in collective bargaining, developing leaders on campus, and building a regional coalition of faith leaders, community organizations, and political allies. Before that, I worked on a legislative campaign in Rhode Island and the Yes on 1 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine.

I graduated in 2008 and I currently work as an Organizer for the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan representing unionized adjuncts and graduate students. I help them in collective bargaining, developing leaders on campus, and building a regional coalition of faith leaders, community organizations, and political allies. Before that, I worked on a legislative campaign in Rhode Island and the Yes on 1 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine.

What are some of your most memorable moments at UMF?:

In my time at UMF, there were two events that stand out as the most profound in my education. In 2010-11, the faculty put together an amazing series on indigenous art and literature featuring William Yellow Robe, Jr. and Georgina Lightning. Interacting with these amazing people was a great lesson in how literature, film, and performance can be instruments of social justice that push for a new kind of discourse around Native communities, their often tragic histories, and their sovereignty. That same year UMF hosted Bill Ayers and Lincoln Auditorium was packed! He’s this radical scholar and people tend to have strong feelings about him because of his involvement with the Weather Underground, but he spoke about how classrooms and the academy create power structures that actually inhibit democracy. I think that the year culminated in a major shift in my writing and thought: I moved away from reflective and distant writing and the stereotype of the scholar secluded in the ivory tower thinking great thoughts toward intensely political and engaged writing.

What makes studying English at UMF unique?:

Having worked with higher ed institutions across Michigan for about a year now, I’ve noticed that they tend to host one or two big speakers a year. I guess that’s cool if you want to see Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek, but at UMF there are scholars coming throughout the year. It means that students get to practice learning outside the classroom more than students at bigger schools. It’s not to say that big name schools don’t have scholarly activities going on, just that perhaps they’re more easily overlooked in an academic environment where too much is happening for students to keep track of it all.

I’d also say that studying English at UMF is innately collaborative. The faculty push students to read outside the field and consult scholars in other disciplines. Sure, we can read about having a room of one’s own, but our ability to truly understand it and incorporate it into today’s discourse comes from reading Annette Kolodny or Jack Halberstam. Once we get past our core classes, we’ve got the fundamentals of writing down and we know how to pick a single line of poetry or even a few words and extract pages of meaning, but then the faculty pull you out of that microcosm and force you to confront all kinds of new knowledge, even if messes with your thesis. You learn at once how to learn from the smallest of details and glean as much knowledge as possible from myriad sources.

How did your time at UMF help you beyond the classroom?:

It’s influenced my current work as an Organizer fighting for a future where faculty and grad students aren’t paid according to their discipline, but according to their labor. Whenever some administrator at the bargaining table asks why we need to raise wages for grad students in the social sciences and humanities, I do take that personally because they’ve placed (an arbitrarily) higher value in STEM fields. More importantly, I’ve got loads of data showing why majoring in English is vital and why our stereotype about beatnik-quoting baristas is actually a myth.

What advice do you have for current or prospective students?:

Study something that makes you uncomfortable and don’t believe that grad school is the only option. And if you are sure that grad school is the answer, think about American Studies.

What type of students should consider majoring in English at UMF?:

I don’t know that I can pigeonhole a “type” of person for the English major, but I’d encourage everyone who’s studying English to double major. I know from experience that you can do it in four years (if that’s what you’re worried about), but more importantly, it’s a chance to give yourself breadth and depth; you’ll encounter all kinds of new materials, but you’ll also find fascinating points of intersection.

What do you see yourself doing in the future (10- 20 years)?:

Well, I’ve been working on my Master’s in Social Work for a couple of years now, so I’d really like to have that finished up. And in 10 or 20 years, I’d still like to be engaged in social justice work, but I’d like 20 hours a week to be considered full time. In the technology-laden world we live in where productivity has increased consistently since the mid-1960s, doesn’t 40 hours seem like an insane standard? I’d spend a lot more time reading if 20 hours was full time and maybe get around to reading Middlemarch or one of 50 other “classics” BuzzFeed keeps telling me I’ve missed.

Lectures in the Arts and Humanities (Fall 2014 Series)

The Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series, a new forum for research and scholarship at the University of Maine at Farmington, announces a slate of three lectures for the fall 2014 series. This series touches on a variety of topics, ranging from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to the British television series Doctor Who to the music of Beethoven.

Dr. Michael Johnson will present “Django Unchained and the African American West” on October 1 (in 23 Roberts Learning Center). Dr. Karen Hellekson will speak on “Affirmational and Transformational Doctor Who Fan Videos” on October 29 (in Emery Community Arts Center). Dr. Steven Pane will present “The Opus 111 Project, Merleau-Ponty, Beethoven and Intermedia” on November 12 (in Emery Community Arts Center). All lectures will take place during the Wednesday Common Ground time (11:45-1:00). All events are free and open to the public.

The Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series at the University of Maine at Farmington is sponsored by the Division of Humanities, the Department of Sound, Performance, and Visual Inquiry, and the UMF Honors Program.

October 1, 11:45-1:00, 23 Roberts Learning Center

Dr. Michael Johnson, “Django Unchained and the African American West”

Although director Quentin Tarantino has described his controversial film Django Unchained as belonging to a “new, virgin-snow kind of genre,” the African American western is not new at all. African American writers and filmmakers have been creatively inventing and reinventing the genre western for centuries. This lectures places Django Unchained in the context of the history of the African American West in literature and film. Only against the backdrop of that representational history can we fairly judge what Tarantino’s film does and does not accomplish. Please be aware that this lecture will include clips from films that have been rated R for language and violence.

Dr. Michael Johnson is the author of Black Masculinity and the Frontier in American Literature and Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West. He is a Professor of American Literature in the Division of Humanities at the University of Maine at Farmington.

October 29, 11:45-1:00, Emery Community Arts Center, Performance Space

Dr. Karen Hellekson, “Affirmational and Transformational Doctor Who Fan Videos”

This lecture examines videos created by fans of the British television series, Doctor Who. The lecture focuses on two types of fan video, the reconstruction and the transformation. The “recon” attempts to recreate or replace episodes of the original Doctor Who series that are lost or missing. Transformative videos, rather than reconstructing, alter, critique, and reimagine the source material. However, because complete faithfulness to the lost original is not technologically possible, recons also creatively transform and alter surviving material, thus rendering recons a form of artwork rather than a literal reconstruction. This lecture will include several examples of each type of fan video.

Dr. Karen Hellekson is an independent scholar based in Maine. She is the author of The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith and The Alternate History: Reconfiguring Time. She co-edits the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, and she has also co-edited several critical anthologies, including Practicing Science Fiction, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age, and The Fan Fiction Studies Reader.

November 12, 11:45-1:00, Emery Community Arts Center, Performance Space

Dr. Steven Pane, “The Opus 111 Project, Merleau-Ponty, Beethoven and Intermedia”

Using Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about art, memory, and history–“a past which has never been present”–this discussion assesses an intermedia performative project that took place in April 2014 where artists, writers, sound technologists, and others within a rural Maine community responded to a theme from the last piano sonata of Beethoven (Opus 111).

Dr. Steven Pane’s career as a pianist, teacher, and writer emerges out of his life-long interest in the interdisciplinary study and performance of music. Whether it be a joint performance-paper (Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata and Mikhail  Bakhtin’s idea of dialogic with Tiane Donahue); historical investigation of history (One Hundred Years Ago (1905) Sonatas by Scriabin, Ives, and Jancek); or re-conceiving classical work with written text (Integrating Bach’s Goldberg Variations with writing by Pat O’Donnell), Pane’s work and collaborations invite audiences to experience music in different settings. Most recently he curated the Opus 111 Project where philosophers, artists, composers, and others created intermedia variations on Beethoven’s last piano sonata. Pane is currently Professor of Music at the University of Maine at Farmington where he teaches courses in music history, writing, sound studies, and travel courses to Italy.

The Job Market for Humanities Majors

The most recent (in 2013, when this article was originally posted) reliable statistics suggest that a major in the Humanities is as competitive as most other fields in the job market. As reported in The Atlantic (click on the excerpt to go the full article):

That’s according to the most recent survey of the college graduate labor market by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. As of 2010-2011, the most recent year with available data, recent humanities and liberal arts majors had 9 percent unemployment. That’s right about on par with students in computer and math fields (9.1 percent), psychology and social work (8.8 percent), and the social sciences (10.3 percent). And it’s just a bit above the average across all majors of 7.9 percent.

Remember that 2010-2011 was still in the midst of the Great Recession, so the unemployment rate is still higher than anyone would like, but 9 percent unemployment is far different from much of how the media reports on the job market for humanities majors (which often seem to infer that unemployment is English is more like 91 percent than 9 percent). The media often exaggerates slight differences. It is true, according to this survey, that liberal arts majors do worse than the average of all majors, so that the a liberal arts major as a 91 percent chance of being employed—as compared to the 92.1 percent chance that is the statistical average of all majors.  However, the difference between the employment of liberal arts majors compared to all majors is slight.

The Value of the College Degree

From Huffington Post (click on the excerpt to go to the full article):

People with bachelor’s degrees make around $300,000 more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school education, according to a new analysis by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s more than triple the value of the degree in 1980, when college grads earned about $80,000 more than those with just high school degrees, the researchers found.