The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork.
Arthur A. Levine Books Imprint, Scholastic, New York, 2016.
YA realistic fiction, 326 pages.
Lexile: HL680L (What does HL mean in Lexile?)
AR Level: 4.4 (worth 12.0 points)
NOTE: This book is not for 4th graders.
We meet Vicki in the most intimate and vulnerable time in her life – after she’s just attempted suicide and is now hospitalized for severe depression.
I got this book through a branch loan (CSviaS) after Naz recommended it to me when we were discussing the sad lack of books about disability with intersectionality. It took a while to come through with holidays interrupting ILL services and me being on vacation, so during that time, I thought of one book in my collection and accidentally encountered another at the store. I’ve also been hitting up Google with the idea of reviewing a number of books about disability by people of color and generating a list for kids, parents, and teachers. Just like early readers, this is one of those little niches of the book world that we need to diversify.
This book is beautiful. That probably seems like a strange thing to say about a book about depression, but the writing is just lovely. It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, not in any way the content, but the writing style. I was quickly immersed in Vicki’s world and wanted her to heal and live.
In my reading experience, most novels about depression deal with either the lead up or process of becoming depressed, or the slow build to or aftermath of a suicide. That’s what makes David Levithan’s portion of will grayson, will grayson unique – it deals with a stable clinically depressed person engaging in daily life.
This novel is about the aftermath of a suicide, but it isn’t the usual treatment (perspectives from others around the depressed person). Rather this is about Vicki’s slow growth in a residential treatment center, and her difficulty in trying to hope for hope and wish for life instead of death as an end to her pain. There are additional dimensions – the attitudes of her family and their struggles and growth, as well as the other three people in her group.
Depression is treated very realistically and the struggles of living with depression were appropriately addressed. There is no magical cure presented in this book, just as there isn’t one in real life. Instead, struggles are faced with a lot of hard work, medications, and help from others. The characters are encouraged to be of service to each other and the community as a means of building self-esteem and finding purpose to life.
Reading the afterword, Stork draws from his personal experiences for this novel, and probably identifies heavily with the protagonist. That lived realism makes this novel incredibly accurate in the little details, like not having a reading lamp in the post-suicide attempt room (because of the cord).
The characters are so true and strangely honest even when you can tell they are lying to themselves. They represent a broad spectrum of social classes and reasons for being at a mental health treatment facility. Over the course of the novel, some get better while others get worse. It doesn’t have a happy ending, and yet it does.
Vicki is a ‘good girl’ with a wealthy family, a talent for writing, and all the advantages you could want. She feels at fault for being depressed, which pushes her further down the spiral. Yet when she finally starts to find some defiance and spunk inside (when her life is at stake), we can’t help but cheer for her.
” ‘Thank you,’ I say. I don’t say those two words gratefully. Those two words are really a substitute for two other words, and I say thank you the way I would have said those two other words.” p. 260
Spoiler: I was pleased and surprised to find that foster care was a minor subplot of this novel. Adoption and fostering in literature is a big interest of mine, and one character in this book gave a look at foster care from an older sibling’s perspective. I felt that this scenario, far-fetched though it may seem to some, was absolutely realistic and true to the emotions and possible actions a family member may take. /End Spoiler
One of my favorite parts of this novel was the way a different culture was seamlessly integrated into the novel. Latin@ culture is one of my weak areas, where I probably know a little more than the average clueless white American, but I’m not really familiar with the culture, don’t have adult friends from it, etc. I’ve had many Latino, Latina, and mixed students including recent immigrants and second or third generation families, and I’m familiar with some general cultural practices like Quinceañera and Las Posadas, but I don’t speak any Spanish, and our adult friends who are Latin@ are mostly adopted.
Most of the characters were Latin@, with the main exception being Dr. Desai who was Hindu and I assume Indian (but correct me if I’m wrong!). Even then, she wasn’t introduced as The Indian Character, but her racial identity was shown through small, natural things, like her name, clothing, and the statues of Ganesh on her desk.
I added this to my list of library books to buy because I will want to read it again. As soon as I turned the last page, I pulled up the library catalog to look for any more of his books. Through various systems and branch libraries I can access five works by this author!
As you can guess from this glowing review, I highly recommend this novel. If reading about suicide, loss, and mental illness is not a trigger for you, then you’ll definitely want to pick up this novel. Thank you Naz for the recommendation! So far your ideas on which books I’ll like have been spot on.