Words We Don’t Say


Joel Higgins is a high school junior who lost his best friend Andy to cancer.  He struggles with loss but also guilt that he began to shirk off visiting Andy in his last days.  While he is surrounded by parents and others who would like to help him (in their imperfectly human ways), he shuts down and hits on the anxiety-relieving technique of writing text messages that he saves as drafts and does not send.  You can imagine how rapidly the number of these texts grows.

Joel says he doesn’t have the knack of book learning. He is skilled and intelligent in other ways, however, particularly in working with cars in his dad’s garage. He is kind to his five-year-old brother and comes across as a likeable protagonist.  He’s secretly crazy in love with a classmate, a girl named Eli, and throughout the book he forms a friendship with another boy in his class.

Joel works once a week at a soup kitchen and makes the “mistake” of trying to draw close to a military veteran he has sympathy for.  As a result of this the veteran makes a peculiar gift to Joel of a gun and some bullets.  Joel doesn’t know what to do with these and hides them in his home garage, occasionally taking them out to consider them.  As you can imagine, this eventually comes to light and causes a big kerfuffle at school and home, but it is resolved without incident.

Joel’s grief at his friend’s death becomes coupled with discouragement about starving people, the treatment of military veterans, and other sad issues.  It wasn’t easy for me as a reader to integrate how all these things were working in him.  There is humor in the writing that left me puzzled by how seriously I was supposed to take his fondling the gifted gun, among other things.  Was he a potential shooter or suicide in the making or what?  You don’t find out what happened to his friend Andy until quite late in the book, and the texting, which is truly an interesting plot device, again was confusing instead of helpful in advancing that understanding.

The characters are likeable and presented sympathetically for the most part.  There is a lot of bad language, including religious profanity.  I continue to ponder why authors who presumably recognize and treasure the power of words proceed to drape their characters’ sensitive feelings and personal journeys in just about the ugliest and most disrespectful language possible.

An interesting few pages in this book come when an inarticulate student in Joel’s English class asks why they are reading nothing but “gay books”–books containing various permutations of LGBTQIA relationships. Anyone who reads Young Adult fiction these days knows it is rare to find a book that DOESN’T have at least one such relationship in it, so I was surprised to see the author present students themselves asking “How come?” After letting the student twist in the wind trying to explain why he feels the books are “gay,” the teacher then asks the rest of the class if anyone else feels the same way.  Slowly hands rise around the room, whereupon the teacher explains away how the students are wrong to label the books as such, it’s a free-speech issue, and so forth, and all but one of the students (who is then ridiculed twice by the teacher for leaving the room when the books are discussed) seem to fall into line. Education in America, folks!

I would not recommend this book.

Categories: Controversial YA Topics, Death and Grieving, Depression, Diversity, Dysfunctional Relationships, Grief, LGBTQIA, Mental Health, Navigating through High School, Offensive Language in YA Literature, Peer Relationships, Political Activism, Social Media, Suicide

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