Every once in a while I run across one of those stories with a main character so beyond the bounds of my everyday existence I marvel at how anyone could create her/him and do so in such a believable way.
Erskine has done so with her character, Caitlin. A fifth-grader, Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome. She's really smart but has a really tough time understanding and expressing emotion. Maneuvering through life means learning an exhausting list of facial expressions that decode what what people are thinking and/or what they really mean. Add to that that the the person who helped her maneuver the world, her older brother, has been killed in a school shooting.
Erskine bites off a huge chunk of storytelling with her character and the external event of a school shooting. She maneuvers both phenomenally. Caitlin is one of the best characters I've read lately. I had no idea what it's like inside the mind of a child with Asperger's. Erskine gives her readers a glance. It's a glance that doesn't pity. It doesn't minimize. It is. As such, I came to both empathize and understand Caitlin. It's a phenomenal bit of writing. Add to it weaving Caitlin's story seamlessly together with the affects of a school shooting on a community and exploring how to find "closure" and this work moves from phenomenal to unforgettable.
The one aspect of this novel that I was less impressed with was that it, like When You Reach Me, relies on an outside piece of art, in this instance To Kill a Mockingbird, to carry part of the story. One day I may do this myself and kick myself for not understanding or for finding fault with this particular writer's tool at present, but when a writer can weave as well as Erskine, story doesn't need outside art to support it, or deepen the emotional resonance. It's already there. And there in spades. For me, bringing in the outside world in this way detracts from the story being told. It pulls me outside Caitlin's story. It also expects a lot from that external art and the reader. I'd hazard a guess that not many children today have seen, To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus, what effect will the film really have on the reader? Wouldn't a fictional film do the job even better by staying within story by being a created part of it?
If you're looking for a deep story about school shootings, how they affect a community, what it must be like to "feel" and perceive the world as a person with Asperger's all wrapped into a story that pulls you toward it in a gentle but insistent way, read Mockingbird. There is so much here. Much to discuss. Critique. Enjoy. Ponder. And grow from.
For other great Spring diversions, hop over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got temptations galore!
Causes Stacy Nyikos Supports
ASPCA, Humane Society, Wildlife Federation