Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Dying Cause

Suicide is a morbidly (oops) fascinating topic for people -- it's something that we simply don't understand and it's something that affects everyone surrounding the people who do decide to go through with it. About 5,000 teenagers do it each year, and it is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 14 and 25 -- Livestrong can give you more terrifying statistics if you're interested. Many teens have been impacted by it somehow, so it's not a surprise that it's been making an appearance throughout teen literature in the last couple of years (and even before that).

2009 brought at least two such titles, including Nina LaCour's Hold Still (Dutton, 10/2009). Caitlin's best friend Ingrid killed herself at the end of last school year; for Caitlin, this was a summer to mourn before needing to step back into a routine at school that would now have a huge void.

Throughout the story, Ingrid's diary is a device for communicating her thoughts with Caitlin. Ingrid left no note nor explanation but instead shared her feelings on other life experiences. As a reader you can pick up the pieces little by little, but you will not walk away with a solid understanding. Instead, the story is told from Caitlin's point of view -- her mourning and her attempts at resuming her own life.

As the year progresses, as indicated by changing seasons in the book (starting with the summer after, then fall, winter, and spring), Caitlin begins to experience the things like a normal teenager again. She develops a friendship with a new girl that as readers we understand begins tenuously out of fear of loss, and she also begins exploring a romantic relationship. But all is not well, of course. Caitlin's grades are slipping, particularly in a photography class that where she had met Ingrid before. The teacher constantly talks about how her and Ingrid were a pair but that Caitlin needs to grow her own talent and self now. This is hard when Ingrid's work is immortalized on the walls, of course.

Hold Still is an interesting exploration of suicide from a best friend's perspective, but I'm going to be honest and say it felt inauthentic. I'm no expert in understanding how suicide feels from a best friend's perspective, but I can say that I've been in high school when a very popular student took his life. There was not an immortalizing of the student, and in fact, faculty was upfront and honest in avoiding the issue. There was no memorial nor fascination with them. While friends had the opportunity to mourn and seek counseling, the issue was something the school felt was not appropriate to "celebrate." Likewise, it seemed to me that no one in the story was angry. It seemed that the characters actually felt only one or two emotions, and there was not much wrestling with feelings. Caitlin had one angry outburst, but perhaps what left me a little unsure was Ingrid's parents at the end of the story -- they were almost too accepting and, frankly, blase about their daughter's selfishness and desperation.

Personally, this book was a mixed bag. It didn't delve deeply enough into character, as Caitlin to me seemed hollow. Although I believe this is the case because of her situation, I felt in discussions of her prior to Ingrid's suicide that she still didn't have any interests, passions, or feelings. The diary was a bit too much of a safety device in the story that took us away from the graveness of the situation and instead gave Ingrid a voice and personality. This made it too hard to be angry or frustrated with her, since she seemed so sincere. Too many times I believed that Ingrid was rational enough to get help, and though I know it's not that simple, I just didn't feel a connection between her and me or her and Caitlin. Likewise, her parents and the art teacher really made me insane. To me it seemed the adults were written too much as teenagers. And as alluded to before, many of the situations about how the school reacted just weren't realistic from my experiences. A little research would have really made this book that much stronger.

That said, Hold Still will resonate with teen readers. As an adult who can reflect back on my experiences, I felt it fell flat of some real potential. But with the number of teens who probably live Caitlin's story, this will be a comforting book to read. The lack of anger or discussion of Ingrid's mental state and actions was frustrating, but perhaps this side of emotion will really impact someone. It can also be a potential wake up call to those ever considering this plan of exit. I'm excited to see what LaCour does next, as this was her first novel.

Five Minutes More by Darlene Ryan was also released this year (Orca Books, 04/09). If you know anything about the Orca series, it's a publisher interested in fast-moving stories that target reluctant readers. This one was a quick mover.

D'Arcy's dad has killed himself. He used to always say that anything could be solved by just "five minutes more," a mantra that gets repeated throughout the book. But as we discover, D'Arcy's dad could not live with Lou Gehrig's disease for five minutes more and instead, chose to drive his car off a bridge and end his life.

Told through seasons, much like Hold Still, we see D'Arcy become a figure who removes herself from her life. Her budding relationship with Seth waxes and wanes, her grades drop dramatically, and she begins getting involved with drinking and smoking -- something she'd never do if it weren't for her father's death.

Unlike Hold Still, as a reader we feel entirely distanced from D'Arcy and her relationships in Five Minutes More. To be entirely honest, I don't remember much emotional discussion from D'Arcy; her feelings were acted upon and out for the reader. She broke many items in a way that felt quite authentic with her anger, but it seemed to me this was a strategy used a bit too much to give readers insight into her mind. For me, I wasn't able to stand the thought of her breaking anything else, but thinking in context of the audience for this title (and this author), I think this is a story that reluctant readers will appreciate since there is NOT a lot of dwelling on emotions. Things happen instead.

Again, I'm not an expert on this topic, but this title also felt inauthentic to me as a reader. The voices were not quite there enough, and none of the characters seemed to be talking like people of their own age/experience. But then again, I'm not a teenager and thus cannot believe that there won't be many who really see themselves in D'Arcy. What I did appreciate about this title was that it took a risk -- it's NOT just teenagers who take their lives. Ryan chose to have her adult character take his life and take it for a very different reason than a teenager: disease. I felt compelled to keep reading, though I was disappointed in an abrupt ending without any sort of closure. I'm sure this is intentional. I felt, though, her romantic relationship did not develop enough over the course of three seasons to make it an essential element of the story. I wondered what purpose it served since it didn't have enough power in the story to even be brought up at the end.

I liked D'Arcy as a character a little more than I liked Caitlin, perhaps because D'Arcy felt like a real character, more fleshed out than Caitlin. I also actually liked D'Arcy's dad in this one; by that I mean, I really wanted to know more about him and his challenges with Lou Gehrig's disease. I did not feel that way about Ingrid.

Finally, what book discussion about suicide would be complete without at least making a mention of Jay Asher's unbelievably popular title Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 10/07).

Like Hold Still, this book is held together with a plot device, namely a set tapes that Clay Jensen receives following the suicide of classmate Hannah Baker. He's one of thirteen people to get this set of tapes that describes exactly what things people did or said that pushed Hannah over the edge. The story's told through Hannah's voice on the tape and Clay's voice as he visits all of the people and places that impacted Hannah.

What Thirteen Reasons Why does that neither Hold Still nor Five Minutes More do is emphasize the impact that small things can have on a person. More generally, I felt like Hannah's voice brought out the point that there are so many things that go into people's decisions to take their lives. It's not a simple thing or two but generally the accumulation of many issues. It's not simple and it can't be understood.

It's been over a year since I read this one, so I had to pull up my review to see what I said initially, which was simple: well-crafted, insightful, consistent, and gripping.

All of this is to say that the teen fiction genre is full of titles that tackle this very complicated issue and each title takes the issue in a slightly different way. As such, there is going to be a title that resonates with a reader who will tackle the grief and lack of understanding that comes along with suicide in a way similar to one of these -- or the other titles in this area. Although the word bibliotherapy bothers me, I believe these are the sorts of books we should know as tools for helping those struggling with the issue of suicide, both from the perspective of the person who is considering taking their life and the people who have been impacted by such a loss.

We will never truly know what is going on nor why things like this happens, but we can explore it as deeply and widely as possible to have a support system. Besides people, books are support; when you consider that each of these characters withdraws into themselves, then you know that a book can be a companion during those times of isolation.

Have you read any other similar titles or any of these? What are your takes on them? It's a fascinating topic that deserves exploration, and kudos to each and every one of these authors for doing it the best they can.

3 comments:

  1. I've read both "Hold Still" and "13 Reasons Why." I liked "Hold Still," and loved "13 Reasons Why," but I feel like the way I feel about them is tied into being an adult.

    "13 Reasons Why" doesn't give Hannah an out, I don't think. It explains why she did it, but it doesn't say it's okay. I got mad at Hannah for leaving behind her tapes, and I was sad that no one caught her signals.

    Whereas "Hold Still" immortalizes Ingrid (like you said), and I really felt like Caitlin was the only one going through something -- the adults in the book drove me nuts too. Ingrid's suicide was almost too smoothly detailed in her journal.

    I'll have to add "Five Minutes More" to my TBR list.

    (And as for my take on the whole genre -- we need these books. Absolutely.)

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  2. I have to second what Katie said. In a year where I've read "Wintergirls", "13 Reasons Why" and "Wintergirls", "Hold Still" is the weakest of the bunch. It doesn't make it a bad read...if I was developing a Reader's Advisory guide of titles about suicide, I would include it, but it's not the strongest of what's come out on the subject recently.

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  3. "Wintergirls" isn't really suicide though in the same sense these titles cover it (I'd argue that an eating disorder may be slowly, but, you know what I mean). I agree 100% that "Hold Still" is not the strongest, and I don't think "5 Minutes More" is, either. I've got a book talk tomorrow and my co-talker is doing "Hold Still." I'm really curious how that will be with the teens, since the only people I've talked with about it are adults so far. I wonder how it is from their perspective. For me? Flat.

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