Happy Tuesday, Reading Nook!
Today, I'm reviewing the quietly beautiful If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy.
It's a thought-provoking novel on the legacy left between fathers and sons, and what it means to find your own way even without the guidance that is normally afforded in a familial relationship.
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published August 26th 2014 by Arthur A. Levine Books
Format read: ARC via publisher
This is a novel that will move readers, and make them feel grateful for any of the time that they have with the loved ones in their lives.
Mike was seven when his father was killed in mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan. Eight years later, the family still hasn't recovered: Mike's mom is overworked and overprotective; his younger sister Mary feels no connection to the father she barely remembers; and in his quest to be "the man of the family," Mike knows he's missing out on everyday high school life.
Then, out of the blue, Mike receives a letter from his father -- the first of a series Dad wrote in Afghanistan, just in case he didn't come home, meant to share some wisdom with his son on the eve of Mike's 16th birthday. As the letters come in, Mike revels in spending time with his dad again, and takes his encouragement to try new things -- to go out for the football team, and ask out the beautiful Isma. But who's been keeping the letters all these years? And how did Dad actually die? As the answers to these mysteries are revealed, Mike and his family find a way to heal and move forward at last.
1) I have a very soft spot for stories about military families. I know plenty of active duty members and veterans of our armed forces, and I appreciate any story that helps civilians better understand the level of commitment and sacrifice that they go through on a daily basis.
2) I almost never get emotional when reading. The last time I actually cried while reading was when I read Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, and that was eleven years ago. But I definitely teared up while reading If You're Reading This.
Trent Reedy has written such a beautiful, thoughtful novel on what it means to have to grow up before your time, and the legacy that a person can leave behind, even long after they are gone.
Things that worked:
I loved Mike Wilson from the very first page, and I'm confident that other readers will too. He's a contradiction in terms; he's young, athletic and good-looking, but he also has daily responsibilities that would be unfathomable to many of his classmates.
While Reedy could have easily made Mike into an angry character who hates the world for taking his father away from him, he doesn't. There's a sincerity and honesty to Mike, as we learn about his love of reading, his desire to go to a good college and his yearning to be able to enjoy life more than what he has now.
I feel that readers will relate to Mike's struggles with wanting to always do the right thing, and the fun, young thing - especially as he begins to receives the letters. Even as his father offers him advice on how to life his life to the fullest, Mike struggles between responsibility and desire for personal freedom - something many burgeoning teens will understand.
The timely questions
Given recent world events, Reedy's inside look at why the United States has played a significant role in the current geopolitics of the Middle Eastern, is an important and timely one.
Reedy is especially good at explaining through Mark Wilson's eyes, just how Americans may have misconstrued a lot of what is occurring in the Middle East, and how it's experience and exposure - something that he repeatedly encourages Mike to seek out - which will help change his misconceptions.
While Reedy's look into the Middle East isn't a perfect one - he occasionally borders on sentimental - I do think that this will go a long way in helping younger readers to stay open-minded and feel connected to world events.
The evolving familial relationships or the impact of the letters
As another reader aptly pointed out in their review, the Wilson family is hurting at the beginning of the novel. They can't communicate with each other, and use emotional crutches - e.g. Mike's mother's overprotective behavior; his sister's brattiness - to try and compensate.
But as annoying and inconsiderate as both mother and sister may be sometimes, the letters allow Mike to see how their behavior is their way of coping. He's able to develop a much more well-rounded relationship with them - something that Reedy smartly includes in full- and it makes the legacy of the letters all the more meaningful.
While the romance between Isma and Mike is definitely cute, Reedy also does a good job of bringing up some important questions about the relationship. The two of them have to deal with the unfortunate prejudices of being an interracial couple in a small town, and Reedy is almost unflinchingly harsh as he puts them through the realities of that situation.
But as Mike and Isma undergo everything from rude comments to full-on verbal abuse from classmates, Reedy presents a nice parallel between Mike and his father jointly coming to the realization that deep down, people who lash out often do it out of fear, and it doesn't pay to give in to those expectations.
There's also a few side lessons on how people shouldn't be underestimated in terms of interests or talent because of gender.
-Mild spoilers ahead -
There is no perfect ending to Mike's story. At the end of the day, he is still living in a world without his father, and is still shouldering responsibilities that should fall on those who are far older than him.
But Reedy is very clear that because of his father's letters, Mike has learned how to adapt to changes and adversity with a maturity that will continue to help bring him and his family closer together. His wisdom will also continue to help him seek out the future that will help him be bold and live a good life, as Mike's father had hoped.
Things to consider:
There are several instances in the novel where secondary characters - particularly Mike's mother - display a significant amount of prejudice and racism against Isma and Middle Eastern culture.
As painful as it was to read those reactions against Isma, I loved the fact that Trent made it a point to include them in the book. They show not only how personal grief and misunderstandings can help perpetuate stereotypes, but also how it's important to not let the opinions of others impact one's own beliefs.
I think educators and parents can take Mike's refusal to follow along with the opinions of others about Isma, as a great example in discussions about how cultural stereotypes are perpetuated, and what it means
Through Mike's journey via his father's letters, readers not only get a beautiful coming-of-age story on what it means to become the best possible version of yourself even in the face of unimaginable adversity, but also a thoughtful look at tolerance, family and love in a small community.
I highly recommend this for readers who enjoy contemporary fiction, but also for educators and parents who are looking for fiction that presents an honest, sincere portrayal of what many of the families of our armed forces go through daily. There are likely younger readers out there with questions about military life - especially with recent world events - and Reedy gives them an unparalleled insight into that world.