E. M. Kokie
Candlewick Press, Fiction, Sept. 12, 2012
Suitable for Ages: 14-17
Themes: War, Deployments, Dealing with Loss, Grief, Redemption
Synopsis: Matt Foster is drowning in grief after his older brother, T.J., is killed in Iraq. Matt has a rocky relationship with his father who is stoic and doesn’t know how to deal with his own feelings about T.J.’s death, let alone help Matt with his loss. Matt has a minefield of problems like failing classes, getting into serious fights with kids, and expulsion from school. When T.J.’s personal items are delivered by the military, his father stashes them away, daring Matt to go near them. Shauna, his best friend, is the only person Matt confides in. He fears his bully father, but knows that the only way he can understand what has happened to T.J. is by opening the sealed trunks without getting caught. Matt finds stacks of letters T.J. has written to Celia Carson and photos. At the very bottom is a letter sealed in an envelope to “Celia” that T.J. never got to send. After reading each letter over and over, Matt decides he must travel from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to deliver the letter and photos to Celia. Together with Shauna, they plot his trip, calculate the cost, find where Celia lives and her place of employment, and find a cheap place for Matt to stay. Shauna loans Matt her car. In searching for answers about his brother in Wisconsin, Matt discovers he doesn’t know T.J. at all.
Why I like this book: E. M. Kokie has written a courageous and beautiful debut novel that is complicated and compelling. She delves deeply into the anger, pain, and grief of a 17-year-old trying to make sense of his brother’s death. Matt wants to know the truth so he can find closure. It leads him on a journey where he uncovers shocking truths about his brother he never imagined. What Matt learns challenges him to honor T.J.’s memory, stand up to his volatile father, and take charge of his own life. In many ways it is also a coming of age book that includes his relationship with Shauna. There is no tidy ending and this book is as real as it gets. You won’t easily forget Matt. It is definitely a book for kids in high school and young adults. Visit E.M. Kokie at her website and learn more about this author who writes “about teens on the cusp of life-changing moments, exploring issues of identity and self-determination.”
SPOILER ALERT: Thought it important to include a quote from the author E.M. Kokie: “I think it is important to note that many LGBTQ service members who served under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, including over 13,000 military personnel who were discharged.” Matt’s story about how his brother lived a secret life is not uncommon. Yet, T.J. was deployed three times, served honorably and was killed in an explosion. Make sure you read the author’s note at the end of the book.