I usually don't waste time writing about books that I don't feel passionately about. I don't think as readers of this blog, you want to hear about every little thing I read, especially when it isn't something I either love or feel compelled to talk about. But this book was different - even though I didn't love it, it is one of the National Book Award finalists for Young People's Literature. And I did say here that I would be reading them all, so I felt that I needed to comment on it.
Caitlin is ten years old, and at the time of this book, it is arguable which is her defining characteristic - her diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome or the fact that her brother has just been killed in a school shooting. She is struggling to cope - Caitlin's brother really supported her and guided her in her interactions with the rest of the world. Without him, she is lost. Her father is also falling apart with the combination of the loss and dealing with Caitlin's issues at the same time. And in their small town, reminders of the shooting are everywhere, including at her school. She meets both the child of another victim and the cousin of one of the shooters in her school environment. The only thing that Caitlin really has going for her is a supportive school counselor with boundless patience and a talent for connecting with Caitlin.
The way Caitlin's brain works separates her from her classmates and father. She doesn't understand others' feelings, and often puts her own way of feeling onto others, mostly unsuccessfully. The book is told from her point of view, but perceptive readers will be able to empathize with those around her as they grapple with all of the events. Caitlin's Asperger's Syndrome also affects the way this story is written - the concepts that she feels strongly about are capitalized. For instance, Caitlin is searching for a way to get Closure - something she has been told will help her move on. Caitlin's counselor is also searching for a way for Caitlin to connect with friends since she has lost her brother. All of the dialogue in the book is italicized , which can be confusing when there is more than one person talking. Caitlin tells the story directly, without a lot of comments such as "Mrs. Brook said", leaving the reader to keep track of who says what.
Erskine states in the author's note that she wrote the book in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, thinking about how a shooting would affect a family. I really respect her reasons for writing it, but by the end of the book I felt it was a little precious. Caitlin seems to come out of her shell and to begin to connect with people. However, the way she ends up being the closest to the people also involved in the shooting, without any prompting from anyone else, seems somewhat forced. While I think her counselor, Mrs. Brook, is wonderful, she seems a little too wonderful - she even calls Caitlin while away on an unexpected family emergency to make sure Caitlin is okay. Her brother, Devon, also seems a little too perfect - one of the youngest students to work towards his Eagle Scout badge, he is trying to include Caitlin in the process of earning his badge.
The book is tied to To Kill a Mockingbird , but because of the way Caitlin's brain works, the connection again seems forced. She brings up the same things over and over again - how her brother Devon thought of her as Scout, how the mockingbird was a symbol of innocence. I know this is a function of Caitlin's brain, but it feels like the reader is being beaten over the head with it.
I do think it is an interesting look at Asperger's Syndrome and I would hope that it would lead to tolerance and understanding in classrooms with Asperger's students. I just felt that it was all too much when it was taken together with the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird and the school shooting too. I worried that it was just me who felt this way - after all, it is a NBA finalist, but I have seen at least one other review mentioning some of the same issues I brought up. I was so wowed by Ship Breaker, and I just felt that this paled in comparison.
Erskine, Kathryn. Mockingbird. Philomel, 2010. Borrowed from Helena School District.