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Review of the Day: The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

EthanWasBeforeThe Ethan I Was Before
By Ali Standish
Harper (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-243340-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Southern Gothic children’s literature. Sounds crazy, no? But as weird as it might sound it’s a legitimate genre. You may think it’s all Flannery and Faulkner but kids have a delightful range to choose from. Now usually such books are in the vein of Sheila Turnage and her Three Times Lucky series, Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon, and J.E. Thompson’s The Girl from Felony Bay. Which is to say, mysteries. The Ethan I Was Before by the North Carolina born Ali Standish isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense. Certainly she drops various mini mysteries into her text as you’re reading, but on the whole her book is a subtle exploration of redefining the self in the wake of personal tragedy. The essential mystery at the heart of the book isn’t “What happened to Ethan?” It’s “Who was Ethan?” And, “Will that version of him ever come back again?”

The first time Ethan ran away he was caught early on. The second time too. The third time his own brother caught him. Now he and his family have moved from Boston to Palm Knot, Georgia, to a home of a grandfather Ethan’s never known and a school full of people he’s never met. Personal tragedy dogs his every waking moment. Something about a best friend named Kacey and what happened to her on a snowy night not long ago. When Ethan makes the acquaintance of Coralee he isn’t looking for a new friend, but this hugely talkative, upbeat, pipsqueak of a human being seems like exactly what Ethan needs to acclimate to his new home. But still, mystery surrounds everything here. Why is Ethan’s grandfather’s bedroom forbidden territory? Who is the mysterious woman Ethan and Coralee saw in an abandoned house? And do her subsequent appearances have anything to do with the treasure they found in the house that fateful day?

When I was a younger reader and reviewer of children’s books I could pick up, read, and finish any middle grade novel you handed me. These days, I find my patience finite. I look back at the time when I could finish any book, no matter how awful, with yearning. Those were the days, eh? And though it sounds trite to say, I can usually predict within 20 pages whether or not I’m going to want to finish any story I’m handed. Now the opening Prologue of The Ethan I Was Before is the kind of work you could probably hand to a creative writing class as an example of a good strong first chapter. Look at everything it manages to pack in! Mystery. Suspense. A creepy vibe. Heartfelt emotion that grabs the reader long before they know why they should even care about the characters. Slap on that kicker of the double ending lines (“Once my feet start moving, I can’t seem to make them stop. I have to get to Kacey”) and you’ve got yourself a winner. This book may be Standish’s debut, but she knows how to pull a reader in, right from the get go.

Mind you, the book does run a great risk of mystery exhaustion. Over the course of a few chapters the reader is left wondering what happened to Ethan, what his brother said to him that was so awful and true back in Boston, why no one can go in his grandfather’s bedroom, and what truly happened to Kacey. And that’s even before we pile on the additional mysteries of who Coralee truly is, who the mysterious woman is that’s stalking the kids, where the treasure came from, and why Coralee has memories of an abandoned house. Mysteries are fine things. Judiciously placed they can lure a young reader deeper and deeper into a narrative, until they’re so emotionally invested in the story and the characters that they can no longer extract themselves. That said, you can’t leave the solutions entirely until the end of the book. Do that and you have what I like to call Lost syndrome, where there are so many mysteries left unsolved and dangling threads swaying in the breeze that the reader is left unsatisfied even if the characters are well defined. Standish does pretty well in this regard. I’m sure that there was a temptation to leave the central mystery of what happened to Kacey and Ethan to the end, culminating in a large reveal. Instead, she judiciously places that answer in the center of the book, allowing the smaller mysteries to accumulate, even as the reader is satisfied a bit early on. And yes, there is a bit of an info dump done in the middle of a hurricane that feels awfully convenient, but since those particular mysteries all relate to one another, it’s not a bad bit of business.

The central question that lies at the heart of this book is whether or not the person you have become in the wake of personal loss (whether it’s immediate or cumulative) is the real you. Let’s look at Ethan. He blames himself for what he believes to be an unforgiveable crime. By running away from home he runs from what he did and, more immediately, himself. His grandfather, by contrast, hardly even moves. His reaction to loss is to set down thick implacable roots, never moving from a time in his life when he felt happiest. These are pretty classic cases of personality forged in sudden tragedy. Coralee, in contrast, recreates herself in the image of her absent mother, constructing a life, if not a personality, that is not her own. Throw them all together and you get an characters that can push and pull and play off of one another thanks to their differences.

Read too many children’s books and you pick up on a certain shade of foreshadowing. So as I went through this book and watched Ethan make friends with Coralee I found myself increasingly grateful for the disappearance of Kacey. Why? Because this book veers awfully closely into Bridge to Terabithia territory. Think about it. Loner boy meets potential manic pixie dreamchild friend. She takes him to a secret lovely location in nature that they keep to themselves. There’s a big storm and she is threatened by water. But unlike a kid reading this book I was pretty sure that Coralee was going to be a-okay. One best friend dead is fine (not “fine” but you know what I mean). Two? No kid’s going to stand for that. No adult reviewer reader either. *cough cough*

Oh! And the writing! Did I mention the writing yet? Silly me. I always forget to mention whether or not an author is capable of slinging two or three words together in a notable fashion. You can plot plot plot all day until you’re blue in the face but an outline is not a book. For a book you need a little eloquence to your language. A little kick to your word slinging. And while I wouldn’t say that Standish is going to blow you away with her descriptive text, there are little things she does that stand out for a reader. Take, for example, this bit that comes Ethan’s first night at his grandfather’s house as he looks out his new bedroom window: “My room looks out on a marsh, where water snakes through patches of reeds the color of Easter basket grass, like it’s trying to find its way somewhere. I guess it probably is.” And later, “I turn my attention to the bay, where a lone sailboat trawls across the sun-shot horizon. The color of the water is like a box of melted crayons, like something from a dream.” These little bits of time and place I like. They’re little anchors in the place of the book, giving you a sense of it, if not the whole enchilada.

Spoiler Alert: Skip this next paragraph if you’d like to keep some surprises for the end.

Put plain, maybe part of the reason I think of this book as “Southern gothic” is the Boo Radley nature of the mom. She has a lot of Boo to her. The lurking. The treasure. The fact that she’s watching a boy and a girl from afar. And, of course, the dramatic rescue she makes at the end. The book doesn’t quite delve into the small town mentality that would have affected her so deeply that it could have. Really, the only time you get a glimpse of that is when Ethan and his mom come to the town and meet an old classmate of hers from back in the day. I think I would have liked more of a sense of the town itself. The characters in this book are full of personality but Palm Knot, Georgia doesn’t. It’s not the focus of the story, but I think getting a sense of the mom’s conflict in returning to this town she left behind (feelings inextricably linked to her feelings about her own father, no doubt) would have added immeasurably to the book, and given all the characters (Coralee, her mom, Mack, Suzanne) something pulling their strings invisibly.

A children’s librarian’s job is to sell kids on books. Some books make this easy. They have explosions, or humor, or something exciting going crazy on their jackets. Other books play a subtle game. Harper Collins did Ms. Standish no favors in giving her the dreaded brown cover (the only color that kids actively avoid when choosing their novels). But the cover is mitigated not just by its title (which is memorable) but also by the writing itself. A librarian could booktalk a story of this sort by recapping the Prologue alone. With The Ethan I Was Before Ms. Standish effectively delves into a variety of serious issues, but wraps them in an appealing mélange of gothic, mysterious, exciting elements. Hurricanes and wild wolves and pool parties. Realistic contemporary fiction can be a hard sell to a kid sometimes, but this book? I feel like this book sells itself. And if you happen to get some really good writing, plotting, and characterizations on the way? Well that’s just icing on the cake.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.