WHAT I LEAVE BEHIND
by Alison McGhee
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dloughy Books
May 15th, 2018
After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.
Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.
When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread.
This is one of those reads which digs deep and hits a chord.
Will is on the way to working through his father's suicide, finds a job and is in a healthy healing place. By watching the world, he grows more and more alert of those around him. When a childhood friend is raped, he decides to give the aide he can.
This isn't a usual story in true form but rather a journey through Will's thoughts in short moments. The numbers one to one hundred are painted in Chinese script on the left side, while Will's comments and experiences are offered in a few lines on the right side. In many ways, it reads like a journal or diary but still takes on a story form just at a more personal level. And it works well.
The writing is open, honest and descriptive enough for the reader to see the scenes and surroundings as they unfold. The father's suicide itself is barely touched upon. Rather, it's the brief memories and search for a perfect corn bread recipe which Will concentrates on. This isn't a book of mourning or trying to get past the initial pain. Rather, Will is feeling his way into life again. His character is kind, questioning and caring to a point which touches the heart. And his dealings with those around him are an inspiration. Even the rape to his friend is handled with finesse, and Will's way of dealing with it is warming.
This is a read with an artistic feel which takes a short journey with a very special guy. It does touch on some harsh issues, but not with the same direction as most literature. It's more of a glance at how one boy hits life again and without realizing it, becomes an inspiration in the simplest way.
And here she is...
Alison McGhee is the New York Times bestselling author of Someday, as well as Maybe a Fox, Firefly Hollow, Little Boy, So Many Days, Star Bright, A Very Brave Witch, and the Bink and Gollie books. Her other children's books include All Rivers Flow to the Sea, Countdown to Kindergarten, and Snap. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Laguna Beach, California.
You can visit her at AlisonMcGhee.com.