I’ve been reading a lot about grief in middle grade fiction these days. This is the first of two reviews that focus quite heavily on grief versus guilt, a concept one generally thinks of as too heavy for middle graders, but in the hands of a fantastic author is not only manageable but important. See You at Harry’s has a fantastic first chapter that captures Fern in a nutshell. I read one page in the bookstore and had to have it. Fern is reminiscing about her best day, which just so happens a day she is home with the flu and spends the entire time with her mom. It is the kind of scene that is slightly nostalgic without being unbelievably wise for a 12 year old.
Like many middle grade narrators, Fern feels invisible. Her father is always working on a crazy business scheme to put their little family diner on the map, her mother retreats to the office to meditate, older sister Sara is too cool for any sisterly bonding, and even big brother Holden, the person she is closest to, is keeping secrets. More often than not, she’s stuck looking after her baby brother Charlie, who may only be a toddler but is a lot to handle. Things get worse when she begins high school and discovers that Holden is in fact the target of a group of bullies. Thank goodness for Ran, her ultra-laid back friend (and possibly crush) who keeps telling her to relax. But then the unthinkable happens, and Fern would give anything to go back to the days before her family is forever changed.
There is a lot of emotion packed into this tight little book. The general plot reminded me a bit of Sara Ellis’ sublime novel The Baby Project (known as The Family Project in the US), though See You At Harry’s is for a slightly older audience. I appreciated the way Holden’s family deals with his homosexuality, which is accepting overall, but with some reservations. This felt very realistic. None of the characters are perfect or 100% likable all the time, but I thought this was a smart and accurate portrayal of a family in crisis. Fern is dealing with some pretty heavy guilt for a 12 year old, but she manages to come through the other side in the end.
This book felt very much like a before and after shot. Before the incident, the family is going along at a crazy pace, annoyed with each other, not always connecting, but not so dysfunctional that you worry about anyone. You especially get a sense of how irritated Fern is by her younger brother Charlie. I was definitely irritated. When the incident happens, as a reader you feel Fern’s guilt just as much as she does. This was a stroke of literary genius on the part of author Jo Knowles.
See You at Harry’s is published by Candlewick available now from Random House in Canada.