The

What We Keep cover
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
  What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay

by Amanda Cockrell

The young-adult novel has taken quite the media beatdown recently for being too dark, too violent, too depressing, and generally just too much. Cockrell’s first foray into the genre doesn’t initially seem to do much to dispel that myth, treating as it does death, divorce, and suicide. Yet at no point does this slim novel buckle under the weight of all this gloom to become simply another YA downer; instead, framed by an utterly engaging narrative with a witty and thoughtful protagonist, these bleak elements strike a balance with more quotidian dramas of school pranks and eccentric relatives to make a provocative, realistic, and even somewhat hopeful story that will leave readers with plenty to ponder.

Fifteen-year-old Angie has been talking to the statue of St. Felix in her church’s basement since she was nine—not crazy, religious-fanatic sort of talking but the more mundane I-hate-my-mom kind of talking. It appears, however, that the statue has recently come to life and is apparently ready and willing to talk back, and Angie is now reconsidering her status as a sane person. Still, this live-action version of her former confidant (or whoever he is—a homeless guy seems to be the best bet, but then how does he know how far Angie let Noah Michalski get on their date last year?) seems pretty wise, and Angie could use all the advice she can get right now. Her family life is in disarray since her well-intentioned but hotheaded mother moved out, and her own romantic life is about to follow suit as she finds herself falling for Jesse, a teenaged veteran of the Afghan war who has more than his fair share of demons.

While a miraculous apparition and a family split certainly have Angie on edge, it is really her relationship with Jesse that brings her to a spiritual and moral crisis. This could have easily become yet another tale of the perils in store for good girls falling for bad boys, but instead Cockrell offers up a realistic picture of a generally amiable teen suddenly having to come to terms with an indifferent universe and her own lack of control in it. Fiercely independent and stubborn to boot, Angie is well aware when things start to go downhill between her and Jesse, and she makes the difficult decision to get out while she can. Jesse is the quintessential idea of damaged goods: he has a rather terrifying temper that may not simply be the result of his experiences in Afghanistan, and when he crosses the line, he does so with violence and rage. He is also undeniably sweet and caring, though, and his efforts to overcome his own trauma are admirable even as they are fruitless. He remains sympathetic to the very end, so that as Angie watches him self-destruct, it is with the painful knowledge that her choice to leave may have very well hastened his downfall.

The conclusion’s ambiguity regarding both Felix’s true identity and Jesse’s accidental death/suicide underscores the book’s tendency to eschew easy answers. Ultimately, this is about grief, loss, and hurts that are too big to be fixed. Yet it is also about love, family, and the power of laughter. A well-told story—much like a well-lived life—includes all these things for better or for worse, and readers ready to tackle the bigger questions will do well to begin here.

Kate Quealy-Gainer, Assistant Editor


 


What We Keep cover

Cover image from What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay ©2011  and used by permission of Flux.


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This page was last updated on September 1, 2011.