The People We Were Before
Well, I told you I would surely be back and talking about grief, and here I am. Just the title of this book spoke to me, personally, as I’ve thought a lot recently about the time before vs the time after in terms of my own grieving process and all the changes that death has brought my way. The Sharon I was before, well, I miss her, sometimes.
“Kasey’s window has been dark for fifty-nine days” starts our novel, and immediately we know that our story will have some darkness as well.
Grief is certainly far from a new theme in children’s literature, and it, of course, shows up this year more than once. Middle grade books that handle loss in childhood tend to get talked about for their Newbery potential even if just because they are viewed as the kind of books that win Newberys. But, why is that? Do deep topics make us feeel so much emotion that we look past other flaws?
The Ethan I was Before definitely makes the audience feel and I found true excellence in its exploration of 12-year-old Ethan’s guilt, grief, and lonliness. His loss is palpatible. Ethan’s voice is real, honest, and, at times, heartbreaking. He barely questions the indifference and hostility he receives from others (his brother, his best friend’s parents, his grandfather) because he feels that this is what he deserves. While most children don’t face guilt over something as tragic as Ethan does, I would argue that most can relate to the feelings. Think back to childhood and that= feeling that you’d done something wrong and there was nothing you could do to make it not have happened…this is a harsh lesson of childhood, but a necessary one.
I just finished reading Jamieson’s All’s Faire in Middle School which tackled this same feeling with enough emotion to make my heart hurt. It’s a graphic novel that I think deserves more converation, but for now, I mention it only to say that this makes for an interesting comparison. Very different stories, told in very different formats, and where Ethan’s “crime” is much more significant than Impy’s in All’s Faire, both characters’ guilt is effectively expressed and both deal with what they feel is deserved abandonment because of their actions. Universal pains of middle grade readers.
Back to Ethan, though, a lot happens in this book, and I’m not sure the plot is as strong as the exploration of theme or as Ethan’s growth as a character. The secondary characters serve as mirrors for Ethan’s emotions, but their motivations aren’t always clear. His brother’s anger is never really satisfyingly explained, for example, and dissipates too suddenly at the book’s conclusion. Ethan’s grandpa Ike’s inconsistent behavior is also not explained satisfactorily, although we are too understand that it, too, is grief induced. Coralee’s character sometimes feels like merely a plot device to get Ethan out of his head, and maybe that’s OK, but even though the reader learns about her motivations at the end of the book, I don’t know that this was enough.
Plus the mystery of the jewels! It’s not the only jewel-themed mystery we have to talk about this year. Beyond the Bright Sea and The Pearl Thief both involve mysterious jewels, and I think Ethan is the weakest of the three on that front. And while the jewels create an external mystery, there are other mysteries that are more powerful in this book – plot points and stories that are unveiled slowly and delicately. What happened to Kasey? Why is Ethan’s brother so angry? Who *is* Corallee and are her stories real? The jewels start to feel like an obvious plot device needed by the author to get us to the conclusion. Throw in a hurricane and it feels a bit like we’re in an entirely different book here for a minute, with so many sudden answers and tidy conclusions to complicated questions.
Does this book, though, need to be the best mystery of the year to be a contendor for the award? Or is the gentle exploration of Ethan’s emotions and relationships enough to carry it to the top?
The reader wonders, through the whole book, if Ethan will figure everything out and go back to being the Ethan he was before. Ethan can’t change what happened. None of us can. But by the end of the story the audience, along with Ethan, realizes that while moving backwards in time isn’t possible, the good news is that moving forward is. Ethan may never be the person he was before the tragedy, but he is still Ethan. I am still Sharon. And life moves inevitably forward. Young readers may not all face the kind of trauma that Ethan has, but surely many can relate to him and his internal dialogue.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Sharon McKellar
Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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