I loved this intricately plotted, expertly structured book, which won the 2009 Michael L. Prinz Award for literary merit in a book for teens. The cover looks very YA-ish, and there is certainly a coming-of-age part to the book, but truthfully, I would not call it a YA novel. At the very least, I would call it a crossover.
It’s not easy to read at first; like other reviewers, I felt very lost for at least the first fifty pages. And yet, there was something about it that made me want to keep going, rather than to engage in my usual reaction of driving the book back to the library with all due speed. It ended up, for me, being a lot like the movie “Sixth Sense” in that, as soon as I was done, I had to go back and start again so I could see what I had missed before! (So yes, I read this twice in a row!)
One half of the the story is centered around Taylor Markham, a 17-year-old [female] senior at Jellicoe School, which is a boarding school out in the bush in Australia for those who either don’t have parents, or whose parents find it convenient to send their kids elsewhere. Every autumn there is a “war” waged between the students: the “Townies” of Jellicoe, and the military cadets from a school in Sydney. The cadets set up camp by the school each September as part of an outdoor training program. Taylor, whose mother abandoned her on the Jellicoe Road when she was eleven, has been around the longest, so she is voted as the leader of the students for the War. Chaz Santangelo, son of the police chief, is the leader of the Townies, and the cadets are led by Jonah Griggs, who Taylor identifies as “not just a name but a state of mind…”
As if all this weren’t complicated enough, interwoven among Taylor’s story is another, concerning five kids from twenty-some years previously. Their story is told more in bits and pieces, and in a way is the more fascinating for it. We don’t know for quite some time if it is fact or fiction, nor how it is related to what is taking place in the present.
The gradual revelation though, is what drives the story forward, and comes to supply its heart and soul.
Discussion: Taylor is a complex character: defensive, reckless, brave, but scared of a lot too: of being close to people; of being dependent on them; and of trusting them. Being abandoned by her mother defined her early life; assuming others want to abandon her colors the rest of it. There are a number of people who want to love her, but either they can’t let themselves for their own reasons, or she pushes them away for hers. So she is a loner, and wonders if not having anyone to grieve over you if you die would mean that you are worth less as a person.
In spite of all this need, however, for love and friendship from other people, Taylor wants them to figure it out without her asking; that way there is no risk to her. So she doesn’t ask because she doesn’t have trust, and thus she doesn’t receive. But as the story progresses, Taylor comes to realize that life is too short for waiting for more from it, and if she wants more, she needs “to go and get it, demand it, take hold of it with all my might, and do the best I can with it.” Her growing process is both painful and exhilarating in its realism. It is perhaps expressed best by her realization about sex the first time she has it: it might hurt; hurt a lot even; but you can figure out together how to do it better until it becomes something else; until it becomes everything.
Evaluation: This is such a moving and well-crafted book that the effects of the story were hard to shake after I finished. Normally, I would not even persevere if I were so at sea at the beginning of a book, but I trust enough in the Prinz Award to know it would be worth an effort, and indeed it was.
And it has been hard to review without spoilers, but I can say (not too helpfully) it’s about love and trust and friendship and loyalty, and in a year of great reading, is right up there for me with the top tier of books. And I can add this: I did something with this book I’ve never done before. As I mentioned above, the day after I finished, I opened the book, and reread it again. I knew that this time, I would know what everything in the beginning meant, and there was a lot to gain from going back. And I swear, even though I had just read it two days before, it was even better the second time! I fell in love with this author, and immediately put in a request at the library for her other books. I just wanted to take this book to bed with me and hug it because it was so wonderful. Highly recommended!
Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2008