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Monday, April 21, 2008

One for Sorrow

Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow is one of the more unusual coming-of-age novels I have ever encountered. Although it has been compared with the likes of Catcher in the Rye and The Lovely Bones, it has far more differences than it has things in common with them, sharing only a portion of the broadest themes of those two novels. This very sad YA novel, especially its ambiguously hopeful ending, is likely to strike a chord with its readers who may be struggling through many of the same emotions and problems faced by fifteen-year-old Adam McCormick - minus the ghosts.

Adam is not the most popular guy in his high school. He does run on the school’s track team but is otherwise pretty much a loner. He is close to his grandmother, who lives with the family, but his parents spend much of their time either ignoring or yelling at each and his older pothead of a brother enjoys ridiculing him at every opportunity. That’s bad enough, but then things take a turn for the worse.

First his superstitious old grandmother dies in her sleep after her count of the number of crows around the house convinces her that bad things are in store for the family. Next his mother is permanently injured in a head-on collision. Believing that bad things happen in “threes,” Adam thinks the cycle has run its course when the body of a classmate of his is found in a shallow grave. Little did he know that his real troubles were only beginning.

Jamie Marks, the computer geek who was murdered, had been even more of a loner than Adam but he is not ready to “cross over” and before long his ghost begins to appear to the girl who had accidentally discovered his grave. After Adam became intimately familiar with the former grave site himself, Jamie’s ghost becomes his regular companion, encouraging Adam run away from home and even introducing him to another permanently-teenaged ghost that has been hanging around her old home place for several decades.

Has Adam been befriended by a ghost or is the ghost selfishly using him for purposes of its own? The two grow very close, and there are even hints of a budding homosexual relationship between them, but before long Adam loses his will to live, almost completely stops eating and drinking, and is perfectly willing to allow death to bring him fully into Jamie’s world. As Jamie struggles to remain in the world he knew, Adam seems to be steadily slipping from that very world as the vampire-like Jamie, either accidentally or purposely, steals more and more of his life essence.

This gloomy book is filled with a long list of irritating and unsympathetic characters, especially the adults, but even all but one of the young people closest to Adam let him down or go out of their way to make his life miserable: his girlfriend, his brother and Jamie’s ghost. This sets the tone for an ending that might leave some readers disappointed but, though it might not be the ending expected by most, realistically, is probably the best that Adam could have hoped for and it fits well with the rest of his story.

One for Sorrow did not leave me feeling particularly optimistic about life in small town America and, in fact, left me a bit down about the whole experience. But young adult readers might take a different message from Adam’s ability to survive everything thrown at him in one dangerously tough year. I hope they do.

Rated at: 3.0

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