This book is about Ethan Truitt, a 12 year old Boston boy who is grieving for his best friend Kacey Reid, a talented, athletic girl, who fell from a tree he dared her to climb. Kacey now lies comatose in a nursing home, her life supported by machines. Ethan blames himself, thinks his older brother Roddie hates him for the incident, and has thrice tried to run away to see Kacey, each time unsuccessfully, but incurring the ire of Kacey’s father, who blames him for her death and vows never to let him get close to his daughter again.
Ethan’s parents, Dave and Laura, move their family to her very small hometown of Palm Knot (“Jewel of the South”) on the Georgian Atlantic sea coast. There Ethan is immediately befriended by Suzanne, daughter of Laura’s schoolmate. Suzanne is the most popular girl in the class, but a bully and archenemy of Coralee, a girl with a mysterious past who turns out to be a faithful friend to Ethan. Together Ethan and Coralee form a firm friendship, solve not a few puzzles, save some newborn red fox cubs (of an almost endangered species!) and learn lessons for life and forgiving, of opening oneself up to others, of overcoming guilt and moving on.
The book is well-written, at times even gripping. Only little by little (in 75 short chapters) does it reveal what happened to Kacey, to Ethan, to Coralee and her mother, to Ethan’s mother and her father (Grandpa Ike, who after his wife’s death has become a loner and seems to resent them moving into his house), and to other inhabitants of Palm Knot, who seem shadowy to the newcomer. It is written in first person, with frequent lists of so far known facts, compiled by Ethan to help him try to understand the situation.
The fundamental moral of the story appears to be one of humaneness with self and others: of not rashly judging others, especially oneself, of learning to overcome fear and guilt, of the value of friendship (“One true friend is worth a hundred false friends.”) and of overcoming grief.
Reading between the lines (or recognizing the subtext) one discovers a message that young people need to speak in confidence with someone who can help them distinguish their imagined impression from reality, someone who can encourage them to dare to put into words their innermost feelings. That need is also seen in adults: the necessity of confidential friendship. Similarly the natural desire for a mother and for family is latent in the story.
In the end we discover that Kacey’s parents have decided to discontinue the mechanical respirator/life support system and “let her go”: “It’s better for her not to be trapped in that hospital bed. She can be free…”
Since traditional morality affirms that one does not need to maintain a person’s life by extraordinary means (as long as the ordinary life support of basic food, water, warmth and hygiene is provided), and that the family is the one to decide if they are to be used, not begun or discontinued, the reader does not have to question Kacey’s parents’ decision.
Still, the reasoning for that decision is not well explained, but appears only in terms of sentiments: “so she won’t suffer any more” (How do they know she is suffering? Perhaps they are the one’s suffering.), so “she can to go to a better place”, or so that we can all “move on with our lives”. It would be moral to base the decision on Kacey’s true physical and spiritual good, not solely on material or emotional aspects, nor on one's own discomfort.
That leads to the underlining ethical fault of the book: the lack of any reference to spiritual realities, other than emotions. There is no mention of God, of prayer, of church. While Ethan briefly entertains the possibility of ghosts, Coralee makes him understand that it is an understandable, but unreal wish to be able to see Kacey again. (The text presents an unstated comparison with time travel, the subject of a book given at school for the students to read.) But there is no discussion of life after death, as if it would not occur to a child, his mother, or his grandfather, who have all lost dearly beloved ones.
Ethan admires the beauty of the sea and Coralee loves animals, but neither thinks about the Creator of nature. They live through harrowing adventures, including a hurricane, but no one prays. Ethan is from Boston, where there is a real historical and actual presence of the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations, but the book makes no mention of religion (unless one places undying devotion to the Boston Red Sox in that category). Georgia is Protestant (almost “Bible Belt”) country, but there seems to be no church buildings nor religious services in Palm Knot, though other buildings and activities are described.
If I were to give the book to a child, a young adult or any friend, I would want to point out those deficiencies and provoke a discussion on the fullness and meaning of human life, which must include and give priority to the spiritual aspects, something the book has failed to do.
Originally from the United States, Fr. J. Farrell Peternal currently lives and works in Lithuania.