January 22, 2020

Last Words

Written by Leanne Baugh
Red Deer Press
320 pp.
Ages 13+

"I'm sorry" are the last words that Will Szabo speaks to a stranger on the Lion's Gate Bridge before he jumps to his death, but they are the beginning of a new chapter in sixteen-year-old Claire Winters's life as she struggles to understand his suicide.

Just before he jumped, Will hands Claire his cell phone–complete with passcode taped to the back–and this becomes the focus for Claire's probe into his death. She discovers a suicide note, emails, voice mail, text messages and more that help her reconstruct his life. But learning about the young man just leads her to question the way of the world and what hope there is. In fact, Claire's own life begins to unravel as she delves deeper, causing riffs with her boyfriend Ty, friends Izzy and Declan, and straining her relationships with her parents and older sister Belle who is moving to a group home–Belle has Down Syndrome–while also impacting her passion for painting. She speaks to different people, trying to get advice as to how to proceed, including from Paul, the executive director of a hospice, who suggests that
"Sometimes the best way to get to the other side is to go right through the pain, yelling, kicking, and screaming like a crazed fool." (pg. 173)
Then Claire meets Kiki, a teen with cancer, who sees life as a gift and a challenge that she will not deny and Claire begins to wonder who got it right.

It's not unusual for young people to look at the world and see the good and the bad as extremes. Except for a person like Kiki who is on the cusp of losing her life, many become distressed by break-ups and environmental disasters and changes that compel them to take a different perspective from the one with which they've become comfortable. They're not wrong to be distressed but they might not always see the circumstances in the realm of a big picture that might suggest these situations are not worth ending a life.
"...if there's meaning in life, there also has to be meaning in suffering. They go hand in hand." (pg. 241)
Leanne Baugh does not take sides. She doesn't make Claire seem over-the-top in her pursuit of Will's story or a victim of wrong-place-wrong-time circumstances, though it was unfortunate that Claire had to witness something so shocking. Leanne Baugh could have made Kiki into a saint who fights her illness with valour and perseverance but she doesn't. And she certainly doesn't depict Will as a victim or a young man in control of his own life. The paths for these characters, as are our own, are never set in stone and suggesting otherwise would be unfair. Ultimately, Leanne Baugh twists her plot to enable Claire to see her life and those of Will and Kiki from a different perspective, for good or bad, and recognize that, as Emily Dickinson is quoted, "Hope is the thing with feathers."

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