Thursday, July 19, 2012

What It Means to Survive

Book Reviewed: I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I love young adult novels.  I enjoy the emotional openness of them, the way they can take me away from my world and put me in a place of empathy towards their characters.  Literary fiction is full of potholes on the road of enjoyment, with an author's desire to be clever often getting in the way.  YA books, on the other hand, are all about feeling, about hitting all the raw nerves that teenagers walk around carrying.  I like that, as I got into reading fiction for the emotional edification, not so I could see how smart a writer was.  I like literary fiction and contemporary poetry.  I like cleverness and intelligence and emotional avoidance sometimes.  But every once in awhile, I just want to read something that was designed to make me feel

Fortunately, one of my good friends is a youth librarian and keeps up on all the best new YA lit.  I take her recommendations very seriously, so when she recommended I check out Holly Goldberg Sloan's I'll Be There, I paid attention.  "It's about brothers," Amy said.  She knows my weakness.  I picked up the new paperback version of the book while out shopping last week, and I started it on a rainy afternoon a few days ago.  As of yesterday, I was halfway through the book, with about 200 pages to go.  I finished those 200 pages in a single sitting, not even getting up to use the bathroom or grab food.  I was addicted. 

Man, did I love I'll Be There.  It hooked me from the first chapter and it just barrelled its way through the intense plot right up until the end.  Sloan writes for television and film (she wrote Angels in the Outfield, which I adored as a kid), so it's not surprising that her first novel would feel so cinematic.  I kept picturing the book as a movie while I was reading it, thinking about how I would go about casting it.  It manages to be epic and personal at the same time.

At the beginning of the book, the Border brothers are struggling to survive, but it's a struggle they're used to.  Their schizophrenic, terrifying father has shuttled them around the continent for the last decade, committing crimes and taking advantage of people.  Older brother Sam is a talented musician who hasn't been to school in ten years and doesn't know much about the external world beyond what he directly experiences.  Younger brother Riddle struggles with asthma and a socialization problem (a mild form of autism, maybe?) and relies on his big brother to keep him out of the hateful eye of his father.  Then Sam and Riddle meet Emily Bell, a very normal girl with a very normal, loving family.  Emily falls for Sam, and then the Bells fall for both the boys, taking them in as honorary family members.  Unfortunately, the boys' father whisks his sons away without warning halfway through the book.  Soon after, an accident occurs that leaves the Border brothers fighting for their lives in the wilds of Utah. 

For the book's middle half, particularly the moments leading up to and directly following the plot-turning accident, I felt like my guts were being wrenched out a little bit more with each page.  Despite knowing deep-down that things would turn out okay, I found so much of the story to be devastating.  You have all these characters trying to do the right thing while hurting so much, missing the people they love.  It's a book about survival - not just for the boys in the woods but also for the Bells, who are unable to do anything for two people they love.  It's a book about feeling hopeless and hopeful all at the same time, and how painful that inbetween place can be.  It's also a book about love and the way we can be saved by the people who care about us.  The situations are extreme, but the emotional stakes are actually pretty familiar.

Sloan is a very simple writer, giving us the facts as we need them and letting every character - even minor ones - have a chance to explain themselves.  The results of this relentlessly omniscient point-of-view are a little mixed.  I actually could have done without seeing so much of Bobby Ellis, Emily's classmate and a minor character who gets a bigger role as the story goes on.  I thought he was a little overused toward the end of the book, at a time when I only cared about what was going on with the Bells and Borders.  And I'm not sure the book's final chapter is entirely earned, in which we get to see happy endings for a variety of characters who were given just a few scant paragraphs throughout the book.  I was so touched by the relationships between Mrs. Bell and Riddle, Emily and Sam, and Sam and Riddle that I didn't want all the distractions of seeing other people's stories.  I think this strange choice for the ending actually kept me from crying at the end of the book, which I spent the previous 100 pages assuming would be a given.  That being said, I did get a little teary-eyed throughout the book, particularly when classically-good mom Mrs. Bell was thinking about her lost boys. 

I highly recommend I'll Be There.  It's a winner of book: fast-paced, deeply felt, entertaining and emotionally engaging all at once.  I could not have been more involved with its characters and their struggles, which is the best thing I can say about any novel.

Note:  This book works as a surprisingly nuanced look at class distinctions among teenagers, too.  Class seems like such a hurdle when you're a teenager (or it did for me anyway; I was an incredibly class-conscious high schooler), but its actual marks are so subtle.  Emily doesn't always understand the way Sam takes part in the world because she doesn't have access to the abject poverty that marks his life.  Meanwhile, Sam seems to understand that there is something embarrassing about his situation in life, despite the fact that he doesn't actually have to face differences in a school setting.  The book takes an extreme situation - the boys fighting for their lives vs. the ordered (though now-upsetting) life Emily faces day-to-day while they are missing - and makes it seem plausible because it's not that far apart from the actual realities of teenagers living in poverty coming into the lives of the comfortably middle-class and vice versa.  I really appreciated the way class plays a part in the story but is completely unremarked upon. 

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