July 08, 2012

Before We Go

by Amy Bright
Red Deer Press
222 pp.
Ages 12+

Before We Go anywhere, we usually make preparations, whether we're going on vacation, to school, to work, to face a challenge or to our deaths. Some preparations are judicious (e.g., making a will, packing a suitcase) while others may be frivolous (e.g., getting a pedicure).  Many are logistical such as booking airplane tickets or purchasing a backpack.  The emotional, heartfelt preparations are perhaps the most difficult to effect Before We Go.

While her elderly grandmother lays dying at Victoria General Hospital, Emily Henderson, 17, does not want to leave her side.  But, when visiting hours end on that New Year's Eve, Emily is especially reluctant to go home to the house she has shared with her grandparents since she was a baby, anticipating the loneliness of having no one:  she has no father, her grandfather is dead, her grandmother dying, and her mother seemingly too busy with her life in Vancouver as a journalist.  It's not surprising that Emily, uncharacteristically for her, accepts an offer from Alex, a young man she meets in the hospital elevator, to join him and his teen sister, Lucy, for the evening.

The three young people become fast friends, driving around and eating junk food, going to a carnival, popping into Emily's house, and finally going to a party.  While they ignore texts and calls from Lucy and Alex's parents and from Emily's mother,  they talk and share.  Emily talks about her mother and her grandparents and being alone, and Alex and Lucy, amazingly close for siblings, chat about their taxidermist father, their mom, and their own relationship.  The revelation that Alex has cancer explains his presence at the hospital and his parents' desperation for his return there but he has a plan that he has devised with Lucy's help and Alex is determined to deliver on it, regardless...

Any book that has dying and death as its fulcrum could become a tough read but Amy Bright keeps the grief at bay with her believable teen characters whose hope, without exuberance, buoys them.  Emily, Alex and Lucy are all looking ahead and finding their fears and responding to those fears, even if frequently questioning their responses.  Emily worries about life without any family.  Alex worries about Lucy after he's gone.  Lucy worries about Alex and what little time he has left.  The plot could seem as contrived as Alex's plan, but Amy Bright brings the three characters together in such a natural way that every event seems to take place fortuitously (not coincidentally), appropriate for the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one.  

Though I had expected a cliché ending (perhaps finding a genetic match for bone marrow transplant), I was relieved by its absence, though also disappointed.  The disappointment was not in Amy Bright's writing or Before We Go's plot: it was a personal need for a happy ending with all loose ends tied in appropriate bows (even if not the colourful, flashy decoration on gifts).  Still, reminded of Robert Burns' poetic assertion that,
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
From To a Mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough (Robert Burns, 1785)
Alex's plan does not end in nothing but grief and pain.   Joy may not be the outcome but with acceptance (as suggested in the hospital's proffered literature on grief) comes comfort and sometimes that's the best that can be expected.

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