Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher's YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, provides an opportunity to open the discussion of suicide, with ourselves...our friends...our families.  As a reader and teacher I appreciate the recurring concept that so many moments of our lives are connected to the lives of others--and we never know what others carry with them when they come into contact with us.

The novel plays much like a guided tour in an art museum--Clay Jensen is our guide through a recounting of events leading to the end of Hannah Baker's life.  We hear her unsettling journey through a set of cassettes created to be mailed to thirteen people who played a part in Hannah's suicide.

Clay is number 9 on the list--his suspense is our suspense.  His angst is our angst.  And, as the novel concludes, Clay's journey forward leaves us to take our own journeys forward--hopefully having learned something about being more aware of ourselves and those around us.  We, in a sense, held onto Clay as we moved through the novel and as he literally hustles up the hallway to take a positive step forward in his life, we can feel ourselves let go, or being let go.  If a million people read the book then we are all letting go to move forward on a million separate paths...which ultimately will cross and affect (a million?) others as soon as today.

After reading a book like this you can't help but ask yourself what you will do with your path--no matter how old you are.

I am especially struck by the fact that the safest havens in Hannah's life were taken from her incrementally.  Admittedly, this didn't dawn on me at all until 1/2 way through the novel--Asher does a great job of making sure his themes and big ideas come out clearly--he respects the reader, but finds a way to make certain his messages are not missed.

Another element worthy of discussion is Asher's decision to exclude Hannah's parents from her life just when she could have used them the most.  Oh, they are present (barely)--she has parents--but Asher lays this story out with a reality any parent has to come to grips with--they can not be present at all times in their child's life.  Asher keeps Hannah's parents well on the outskirts of her private life dealing with their own business, their recent move, and their own private lives.

Similarly, as Clay takes us on his journey, his mother checks in with him (warily) from time to time throughout the novel and gives him the space and trust to continue on his path...even though we are fairly confident as readers that she is aware that he is lying to her.  Suspecting something is up, she too remains on the outskirts of this moment in his private life.  Clay is wearing his emotions on his sleeve--even the male working at a diner sees it on his face and doesn't charge Clay for his milkshake.

As an adult, the roles adults play in the novel is compelling--because as much as I'd like to say otherwise, Asher's inclusion of adults is fair and honest.

Asher's homework is evident--the characters make choices that feel like those made by real teens--not romanticized versions of a sixteen year-old.  Their world feels real--the adults almost feel like the furniture in the room--they are there when you need it, they just kind of came with the house, the school, their life.

And I'm not so sure this isn't really what adults are at moments of high stress and anxiety in a teen's life.  Sometimes we are the last person they turn to (as is the case in the novel) and even at that the novel makes me question the job we do as adults to establish those connections of trust and comfort without forcing ourselves over into that other plane of reality, the plane teens ride through life on.

From what we are given in the novel, Mr. Porter had as much of a chance to save Hannah as Clay--even though he is the adult, his connections are very different.  I don't pity him nor do I blame him, but his character makes me disappointed because I know he is real...and so, the question I walk away with as a teacher, is how do we go from being the furniture in the room, who the Hannahs in the world turn to last, to someone who can maybe be a positive influence from the beginning?

Are we no more than the diner owner who offers to waive the charge for a milkshake, a mother who has to trust and let her son go on his own journey, a dad helping a son with an engine, the teacher who sets up well-intentioned structures in her class yet they are abused by individuals...are these connections meaningful...are we on the surface no matter what we do?  Do we ever dig deeper with young people--or are they set on digging alone, or only with their own kind?

The real connections in Thirteen Reasons Why, the meaningful connections, are made between the teens--the book is their world, and their world is on a very different plane from the world of the adults in their lives, even though many of us (youth and adult) extend our hands to each other and cling to each other. 

I know many young people have read and will continue to read this book--I can only hope that more adults also pick it up in the hopes that it allows us to extend one more hand to the other plane...the plane we once stood on in our lives when we were teenagers.  At some point we made that leap out of that world into this one: the one with mortgages and loans; the one where we come face to face with our adolescent dreams; the one where our failures grow heavier with age; and the one where the love shared with our children, our talents, and our accomplishments makes it all worth is incumbent on us to help everyone realize their hopes and help everyone edge closer towards their happiness and the beauty in the world...and it is incumbent on us to play our part with as much passion, selflessness, and awareness as is humanly possible.

We may not all always be a part of the solution, but at the very least we can all make sure that we are never a part of the problem.

Well done, Jay.

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