John Clark: I planned to post something called “Corpses, Love at First Sight and Other Causes of My Lifelong Insanity” today, but the book I finished this morning, coupled with two I read a week ago were so striking they deserve their own blog entry. My first January post covered some of the incredible books available for anyone over the age of ten who is struggling with painful life issues. Since posting that, I’ve read another 25 or so books, many addressing some problem teens struggle with. I reiterate my observation that ANY kid struggling with something these days can pick up a book that will do two things, make them feel less alone and start thinking about what they can do to make things better. The three books reviewed here do a terrific job of highlighting the scope and depth of mental health issues on people other than the person with the disease. One focuses on PTSD, another on Alzheimers and the third on the fallout from suicide by a family member.
Laurie Halse Anderson made her name with Speak, written in 2000, which pretty much set the bar in terms of books about teen rape. It has since been made into a movie and was followed by numerous other books for teens and tweens. Her latest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, opens as Hayley is in detention after confronting a teacher because she knows he was incorrect. She’s still figuring out the new and foreign landscape of high school. Her mom died when she was very small and her father, a West Point graduate, is so damaged after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he can’t stay put or employed for any period of time. Even pills and booze can’t keep his demons at bay. She’s spent much of her life sitting beside him in long haul trucks while going back and forth about history and similar subjects.
Dad is trying one last time, so they’re living in her late grandmother’s house which needs lots of fixing up. Hayley is enrolled in school, but after taking care of her father for years, she desperately needs someone to start taking care of her. Her journey to wholeness begins when Gracie, a girl her age stops by with fresh muffins and all of a sudden Hayley has her first real friend, one who has a photo album of pictures from when they were in kindergarten together. When Finn, who is friends with Gracie’s boyfriend, starts paying attention to her, she freaks, even though part of her desperately wants someone like him to feel she’s important. He challenges her to help with the barely alive student newspaper and a connection, for better or worse, begins.
Trying to edge back to normal, while being the parent in a dysfunctional family, is next to impossible and watching Hayley implode as Dad gets sicker isn’t pretty. While the book does end in a positive way, the ride to get there is really gut twisting. By the time you close this book, you have a very good understanding of how pervasive one person’s PTSD can be. This is a book that deserves to be in every school and public library.
Five Minutes More by Darlene Ryan body slams you from the opening paragraph. “I play the Five Minutes More game. Five minutes. I can stand anything for five minutes. Even my father being dead.” D’Arcy’s dad was a photographer. He was funny and caring, but a couple nights ago, he drove his car into the river. No skid marks, no wearing his seat belt. She’s in a world of hurt, but when her mother starts hinting that it was suicide, she loses it completely.
Unfortunately, as events unfold, D’Arcy has to come to grips with several things. Her father had been diagnosed with ALS and wasn’t able to face losing control of his muscles. Her boyfriend is more interested in pawing her than trying to understand her grief and has no clue how to be supportive. She has some serious rage bottled inside, partly because she lost Dad, but as much because her step sister Claire, never spent much time with him and now it’s too late. Her only helping hand comes from new guy, Seth, who really gets her situation. Unfortunately, He’s mired in his own blackness, the result of losing his older and more athletic brother in an accidental shooting the year before.
The action in this book is brutal, painful and pretty realistic in terms of portraying just how dislocating and devastating suicide or the sudden loss of a family member can be. D’Arcy, discovers how alcohol can numb the pain, but can also pull you into a pretty scary culture. After Seth does something because he can’t deal with his sadness and pain, she runs away and tries to kill her feelings by drinking and living with another lost girl in the woods. While the ending is satisfying, no one remains unscarred and that’s pretty much how it is in real life. This is another excellent book by Orca Book Publishers, one of my favorite presses when it comes to meaningful books for teens.
The Quiet Roar of a Hummingbird is by Maine author Catherine Gentile (ISBN 9781626464131). While there are two things I think could have been done a bit better, they pale in comparison to how powerful and wonderful the story is. Seventeen year old Hummingbird Windsor has issues and problems. Among her issues are being busted for burglaries committed under duress because she was desperately trying to fit in with the ‘Blingers’, a gang of girls at her high school who got their kicks by breaking into their friends’ parents homes and stealing stuff. Other issues include her lawyer dad walking out when she was little and never bothering to be part of her life, while hinting that her birth was the last little mistake that wrecked the marriage. The final issue she has is that her body has betrayed her. She’s still waiting to have her period, something the ‘Blingers’ tormented her about in pretty humiliating ways.
Her problems are even more daunting. Her beloved grandmother Sukie, is in the latter stages of Alzheimers and resides in a facility near where her estranged father and his new wife live. She also has buried the reason she sought support from the ‘Blingers’ in the first place, the fact that her now ex-boyfriend, Bruce, was abusive, even to the point of borderline sexual assault. When everything blew up, Hummingbird got lucky. Her intake assessment demonstrated that she had real redemptive potential, so she was able to bust her tail in summer school and will complete high school and her court ordered service by volunteering on the unit where her grandmother resides while writing a paper about her experience.
Unfortunately, completing her paper and the volunteer service mean she’ll spend the time living with her father and his new wife, Solange, who Hummingbird is prepared to dislike. She’s running late on her first day and leaves her camera on the bus. While she’s having a mini-meltdown because she’s an hour late and lost the camera, her mad scramble to get the number from the license plate is interrupted by a deep voice saying “Lucky for you your eyesight is so good.” Enter Elliot, who gives her the initial impression he’s a skinhead until they start talking and he gives her a card with the phone number of the bus company on it. As their conversation continues, she realizes he has no feet and a scar on his head along with a tattoo. He’s polite and funny, telling her he resides on the floor below her grandmother where he’s rehabbing after a horrific boating accident.
While Hummingbird is determined not to open up the possibility of a new relationship after the disaster that was her previous one, she can’t help but notice the warmth and honesty reflected in his eyes. Besides, He’s on board with helping her with Sukie.
Hummingbird is distressed over her father’s distance from her and his refusal to own any part of the reasons for their estrangement. Her big surprise is how much she comes to like Solange, who becomes a friend and ally at a time when she really needs both. As her time on the unit progresses, she starts realizing how poor the treatment is. When she witnesses what seems to her to be outright abuse of her Gram, she reports it and things deteriorate quickly. Fortunately, Solange and Elliot are there when she most needs them and even her father starts to own some of the things that have made her life so sad.
I love this book. It really shows how a combination of distant parents, bullying and a loved one slipping into dementia can turn a good kid upside down emotionally. Even with an ending that’s pretty satisfying, I’d really like to see another book that takes readers along to see what happens to Hummingbird and Elliot in the future. There’s a great guide for readers dealing with a loved one with Alzheimers at the back of the book and the author has request boxes for a curriculum guide and reader’s group discussion guide on her website at http://catherinegentile.com/