February 24, 2021

Nothing But Life

Written by Brent van Staalduinen
304 pp.
Ages 12+
February 2021

Fifteen-year-old Wendell (Dills) Sims's story in Nothing But Life begins with his juvenile sentencing after attacking a classmate, Patrick (Pat) Schultz, with box cutters. But this isn't the real start of his story because it's his backstory, about what happened before he and his mother moved back to Hamilton from Windsor, that overwhelms his present.

Now tracked with an ankle monitor by his probation officer Sean, Dills begins his community service picking up garbage at Churchill Park and environs. Under the casual direction of the park manager Gal, a scarred man who smells of pot, Dills toils away in the heat, trying to keep his head down and avoid trouble, even when his bully Pat comes around to provoke him. But Dills constantly hears his stepdad Jesse's voice in his head, remembering the advice he often shared, especially from his time in the military, to help Dills understand and make good choices.
"Own your own shit, kid," Jesse says. "One, no one can shoulder it for you. Two, it feels good to be responsible." (pg. 167)
Now, though, Jesse is also beckoning him to visit him. "I'm here. Come see me." Over and over again, Dills hears Jesse begging him to visit him in the hospital where he lies in a vegetative state, neither dead nor living. But Dills is torn between his love for the only father he has ever known and the horrors of a shooting at his school for which Jesse was responsible. Troubled by his confusion of feelings and tethered by his probation, with neither the money nor the physical means to get to Windsor, Dills is stymied. When he becomes acquainted through Gal with Mia Al-Ansour, a classmate and competitive wrestler, things take a different turn, and Dills make a decision to make the impossible possible, albeit with much deception, some hacking, and a lot of support from Mia, Gal and his Aunt Viv.

Though Nothing But Life is based on how Dills has coped in the aftermath of a school shooting by his stepdad, it's not about a school shooting. In fact, Hamilton author Brent van Staalduinen provides very few details of what actually happened at Wendell's school. What's more, though Dills finds a way to visit Jesse in Windsor, it's less about reconnecting and more about finding closure so that there is nothing but life ahead for Dills. Still, by writing with much seriousness, Brent van Staalduinen makes the reader realize that a story about a young man reclaiming his life rather than living it as the legacy of his stepdad's military PTSD or his own trauma associated with the shooting is sombre and requires thoughtfulness and compassion. The dying happened and that would never change. But Dills finds a way to ultimately end things with Jesse so that he might go beyond the kid whose stepfather perpetrated a school shooting and become the kid who is taking responsibility for his actions, and, even better, being open to friendships and more. It's nothing but life and, as Jesse would say, "Clear as mud."

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