Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

What I Leave Behind

What I Leave Behind

Alison McGhee
For ages 13 and up
Simon and Schuster, 2018   ISBN: 978-1481476560

Three years ago, when he was thirteen years old, Will’s father died under tragic and painful circumstances. Ever since then Will has lived with grief in his heart and unanswered questions rattling around in his brain. To stave off the darkness, Will has walked. He walks to work and to school, and often he just walks for the sake of walking because when the painful things in life are getting you down and your day is hard, the best thing to do is to “Walk it right out through the soles of your feet.”

Will walks all over the place but there are a few places he avoids. He stays away from the river bridge over Fourth Street where his father died. He avoids the blessings store that he and his father used to go to. And now he avoids Playa’s house.

Will and Playa have been friends forever. They have done everything together and supported each other through countless trials and tribulations. Until now. Not long ago Playa was raped by three boys at a party. Will was at the party but he left and Playa stayed. Will cannot help feeling that he should have known when something went wrong, that he should have felt “some kind of shiver in the universe” when Playa was being assaulted. The guilt drives his feet forward and he walks.

Then there is a shift, a little change, and Will begins to see that he is not the only one who is struggling. Will finds ways to cheer up his manager at Dollar Only. He gives the socially awkward man a ‘cool’ name and finds small ways to make “Major Tom” feel like less of a social misfit. Then Will notices a little boy alone in his yard. The boy explains that he is waiting for the butterflies to arrive. They always do, promptly at 5:30. Will ends up waiting ten minutes with the little boy, or little butterfly dude as he calls him, and sure enough at 5:30 the butterflies arrive.

The very next day at work a shipment of plastic binoculars that have butterflies painted on them arrive. Will buys one and he leaves it in little butterfly dude’s yard. Will does not tell the child that he gave him the binoculars. He just enjoys little butterfly dude’s happiness and excitement.

On another day he buys something for a little child who comes into Dollar Only with his mother. Then he gets little butterfly dude a plastic step stool and a shovel. Will’s gifts are small, but he knows that they mean a lot to the little boy who loves butterflies. Slowly but surely, with every passing day, the things Will gives to others who are having a hard time makes his own pain ease, and he starts to find the courage he needs to face the things he fears the most. And to go to the places that he has been avoiding.

This extraordinary and powerful story is told using one hundred chapters, each one of which is only one hundred words long. One might be tempted to think that such a spare narrative would be thin and incomplete, but this is not the case at all. Every word carries weight, emotion, and story, and we are able to see how Will slowly opens up to the world again and starts to engage with those around him in a positive and generous way.