Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Falling Boy, by Alison McGhee

In Falling Boy, Joseph works in a bakery in Minneapolis. He is sixteen years old and he is confined to a wheelchair, but more than that he is often confined within his own mind. He speaks some, but not often and not at length and certainly not about the reason why he is confined to a wheelchair in Minneapolis. Zap is seventeen years old and while I cannot tell exactly if he works at the bakery or if he just spends all his time there, I believe he works with Joseph at the bakery. Zap, nicknamed such because of his obsession with comic books tells everybody that Joseph is in a wheelchair because Joseph saved his mother from falling off of a precipice, a cliff overlooking the sea. Enzo, a nine year old girl, is another who frequents the bakery and seems to be in something of a war with Zap, though the reason why is not clear at the beginning of Falling Boy. She constantly attempts to find the reason why Joseph cannot just get up and walk and while she does not seem to believe Zap she also calls Joseph a superhero, something which Joseph denies being.

This is Falling Boy, the third young adult novel by Alison McGhee. While McGhee has now published as many young adult novels as she has published adult novels, the latest two (All Rivers Flow to the Sea and Falling Boy) are of such a high quality that if you take away the "young adult" tag and just call the books "novels" the reader will be left with two outstanding works of fiction which just happen to feature few adults as main characters and focus on the situations of these children. But then again, Shadow Baby was tightly focused on a child as well.

What I am trying to say here is that Falling Boy (and All Rivers Flow to the Sea before it) should not be judged so much by the proposed age group target, but rather by it being a fine piece of fiction. As she does with all of her fiction, Alison McGhee delivers finely drawn characters in a very real setting and tells a story which while small in scope is large in importance to the characters which inhabit the story. Enzo is partially a bratty nine year old girl, but there is a hint of sadness and loneliness about her. The same can be said about the compulsive storytelling of Zap and the quietness of Joseph. While Falling Boy is a story of friendship and discovery, it is also a story of sadness as the reader can almost sense this minor chord of dissonance running through the novel.

One other thing that McGhee excels at is building a sense of place. Much of her previous fiction has been set in and around the small town of North Sterns, in the foothills of the Adirondacks Mountains in New York. The sense of North Sterns being a real place with real people was something that permeated her work. Those were characters which continued to have lives and interactions even after the last page was read and the cover was closed. Alison McGhee brings this same sense of place to Minneapolis. While she describes just a corner of Minneapolis near Lake Calhoun, she leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that these characters can be found in Minneapolis and that this corner of Minneapolis is one which could and should exist.

The shifting of the setting from New York to Minnesota is one which I find refreshing as a reader because I work in Minneapolis and I have run the three mile loop around Lake Calhoun. I do not know that particular area very well, but what McGhee describes is a setting which rings true. I suspect that readers outside of the Twin Cities Metro will also have this same feeling that the Lake Calhoun setting is as real as that of North Sterns.

Falling Boy has a very different feel to it than All Rivers Flow to the Sea. I mention this because All Rivers Flow to the Sea was a spectacularly strong piece of fiction brimming with raw power and emotion. Falling Boy is not that sort of story. It is filled with emotion, with sadness and with wonder, but it doesn't have the strength of All Rivers Flow to the Sea. Falling Boy moves like the familiar faces seen around Lake Calhoun, and it delivers a different set of feeling, that while lacking the raw power of All Rivers Flow to the Sea, it is no less strong a piece of fiction. By the time she reveals what exactly happened to Joseph the reader has fallen in love with the melancholy feel of the bakery and the child-centric setting.

As a reader I get excited when I learn Alison McGhee has written another novel because it means that she is delivering up another serving of memorable characters, a moving story, and a strong sense of place where I can smell the bread baking.

Was it beautiful?
It was. It is.

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