It has often been said that the only thing certain in this life is change. Some of these changes are expected, such as the hormonal shifts in our bodies as we mature, or rites of passage that are considered normal in our society, like getting a driver’s license and a part-time job at the age of 16. But sometimes things happen that we do not expect: life-changing events so painful that if we ever let ourselves really believe they were likely to occur, they would wake us up screaming at night.
With this theme as a backdrop, in "A Certain October," three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Angela Johnson explores how one teenage girl attempts to cope with her guilt and despair after a horrifying accident.
Johnson’s protagonist is a normal, well-adjusted 16-year-old girl from Cleveland, named Scotty. Her world, despite all the turbulence and drama typical of the average American high school student’s social life, is rather predictable. Sure, she does have to deal with certain unique challenges such as keeping her autistic, cookie-thieving little brother from running naked through the neighborhood, but for the most part, her existence rumbles along on a generally happy if uneventful track. She has close friends, a loving family, and achievable goals such as her desire to one day learn Kiswahili. She might say that these people and things help define her, but one “Certain October” will forever alter her self-image.
Johnson’s well-crafted novel shows off the author’s talent for using pacing and narrative flow to create atmosphere. For example, in the beginning of the book when referring to those who loved and supported her during the weeks following the accident, Scotty says that she “got to see the world through their eyes that certain October, although my own were slightly unfocused.” With this as a springboard, Johnson has Scotty relate her experiences not in the tightly focused or strictly linear fashion of most stories but with occasional jumps back to previous events. At first reading these may seem unimportant and even distracting from the central plot line, but they are used effectively to add a touch of the dream-like ambiance often experienced by trauma victims.
Scotty’s slightly philosophical reflections and memories of personal interactions with her friends also do much to round out her character for the reader. For example, we learn that she sees her life as resembling tofu, bland and not that appealing on its own but a solid accompaniment to the stronger and more pungent personalities and situations she encounters. The love lives of her friends, the school’s Homecoming dance, and the drama of personal relationships are what truly concern her. Yet Scotty is far from shallow, nor is she a weak character whose opinions are controlled by her friends. If that was the case she would have never made such a personal and long-lasting commitment to vegetarianism when everyone around her eats meat. Instead, she is a rather unimposing yet rock-steady companion that her friends and family can count on, an others-focused individual who is instantly likable.
Possibly one of the most touching aspects of the book is how Scotty’s friends and family rally around her when she needs them most. The girl who always seems to think of others first suddenly is on the receiving end of the care being given. Although she is uncomfortable at times in accepting the hugs, help, and the concern that radiates from those she knows, it is to her credit that she doesn’t just brush them aside.
Instead, she focuses on healing and coping, and as life begins to return to some sense of normalcy despite a new set of circumstances, her strength of character becomes especially evident. Helpless to change what she perceives as her role in the accident or to somehow make amends in the aftermath, she battles the darkness in the only way she knows how: She tries to fix the various problems of her friends.
“A Certain October” has a lot going for it thematically, but it also has some perspectives that will be problematic for many Christian readers. For instance, Scotty’s closest male friend is a teenage homosexual, and one of the problems she hopes to fix is to reunite him with his ex-boyfriend. In addition, she comes close to having sex with a boy, until he calls a halt because they have no protection. Teenage drinking and occasional strong language are other aspects of the book that some readers may find offensive.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to find books published in the secular market for older youth anymore that do not contain some or all of these issues. However, despite the inclusion of these features in the novel, the book as a whole is far more hopeful and positive than much of what is being produced these days, and if read together by a mother and daughter could foster some good discussion on the nature of relationships.
Image copyright Simon & Schuster. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, theUS Review of Books,and more.
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