This is a moving story about a high school senior, Matt Miller, coping with the recent death of his mother from cancer and his dad’s descent into alcoholism. Matt is pretty much on his own until his neighbor, Willie Ray, offers him a job helping out at Ray’s Funeral Home. Willie soon also becomes Matt’s mentor.
At first, Matt thought a funeral home would be the last place he would want to be, but he finds that he feels comforted by being around other people trying to deal with loss. Matt is an amazing character, and his thoughts and feelings about death and grief will resonate with anyone who has been through the same thing.
He observes, for example, that no one likes to use the word “died.” At one funeral he attends, he says:
“. . . the pastor read off the program, ‘before God called his angel back home.’ The preacher at my mom’s funeral said something like that too. I guess that’s better than saying ‘died.’ But it still means the same thing. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It still sucks.”
He keeps his sense of humor though, imagining his own obituary:
“Matthew Miller was the son of Daisy Miller and Jackson Miller. His best friend was Chris Hayes. He couldn’t land a date to save his life. So he died. The end.”
But as it turns out, Matt does get a date, with a girl he meets at one of the funerals, whose name is Love (“Lovey”) Brown. Their first date is a bit unexpected: it is Thanksgiving, and Lovey takes Matt to serve food at a homeless shelter. Matt lives in the Bedford–Stuyvesant (known as Bed–Stuy) neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has both good and bad areas, so he considered himself well-acquainted with homelessness and poverty, but had never actually been to a shelter. He thought it would be like a prison, but finds out it’s actually a pretty nice place full of folks who are down on their luck, but still people. Matt told a reporter: “I realized that most of these people are kind, and just grateful for a hot meal and someone to talk to. We all can relate to that.”
As Willie tells Matt, life isn’t so much like a game of chess, as some people think, but more like the card game War:
“I flip a card, then you flip a card…. Sometimes I win … and sometimes I lose. And sometimes, I can lose and lose and lose and I don’t know why. But there’s nothing I can do but just keep flipping the cards. Eventually, I’ll win again. As long as you got cards to keep turning, you’re fine. Now, that’s life….”
Many of the plot threads don’t get tied up at the end, but I got the feeling this book was meant to be more of a “slice of life” rather than a complete story in the traditional sense.
Evaluation: Reynolds is an excellent storyteller; his voice is fresh, authentic, and infused with love and respect for his characters no matter what their situation. If you are not a young black boy yourself, you may think you won’t be able to relate to a story with a young black boy as a protagonist; I think this book will change your mind. Highly recommended.
Note: Awards for this book include:
2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor Book
2016 American Library Association Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults
2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2015