What if you were hurt so much by the loss of a loved one you could no longer move forward? For fifteen-year-old Jam Gallahue, the world stopped one fall morning while she was walking across the high school practice fields on her way to class. Will a new school help her find the strength or peace or determination to look to the future?
I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on staff or faculty, they'll insist I was sent here because of "the lingering effects of trauma." Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" teenagers.—Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Penguin USA / Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2014, p. 1)
On the line where it says "Reason student is applying to The Wooden Barn," your parents can't write "Because of a boy."
But it's the truth
- Setting: Vermont; modern times
- Circumstances: Reeling from the loss of her boyfriend, Jam is sent to a special high school in hopes that she will once again embrace life. To her surprise, she is chosen for the most coveted class: Special Topics in English, which promises to be life changing. The five students spend the semester reading Sylvia Plath and keeping a journal. They grow close, and for reasons they cannot share with anyone else, the class is indeed deeply transforming.
- Characters: Jam and her parents and brother; Reeve, her boyfriend; the four other students in her English class; various other friends, teachers, and even enemies
- Genre and audience: magical realism; contemporary fiction; generation-crossing young adult fiction
- Themes: grief; mental health issues; friendship; trauma; healing; forgiveness; family; love; reality vs fantasy
- Messages I loved: That words and books have the power to heal, that what we get out of books and poetry is affected by our personal experiences and expectations, and that by examining and accepting the past we can often find a way into the future.
- Characters and plotting: Wolitzer doles out the facts slowly, so that although there is no mystery in the traditional sense you still feel tension: What experience brought each young person to the school? Who will find healing and who might be lost forever? I bought the premise and thought the execution of the story was excellent. But although I grew to care about Jam and one of the boys in her class (Griffin), some of the other kids were not quite solid enough for me.
- Recommendation: Read this one! It might not have been perfect, but I loved it. Had I not been listening to the audiobook, I would have read it one sitting.
- Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Listening Library; 8 hr, 6 min) was narrated by Jorjeana Marie. Although Marie has dozens of audios under her belt, this was my first time listening to her. In a word? Wow. Marie gave her voice a believable teen quality, and her tempo and feel for the story drew me in and held me. In addition, her characterizations, although not overdone, were consistent and clear. Don't hesitate to give the audio a try.