One of the best summations of parenthood I know of is by Elizabeth Stone, who likens having children to having “…your heart go walking around outside your body.” The novel If I Fall, If I Die, by new voice Michael Christie (Crown Publishing Group, 2015) takes this concept to extremes, and in the process illuminates one of the great truths of parenting: despite your best efforts, your children are going to fall, and they are going to experience pain.
Don’t let the title of this wonderful book put you off, as it did me at first. By using the characters of an agoraphobic and depressed mother and her skateboarding son, Christie has written a surprisingly kind and gentle celebration of living. The novel opens with eleven year old Will stepping outside of his house for the first time in many years.
The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die.
He was not riddled with arrows, his hair did not spring into flame, and his breath did not crush his lungs like spent grocery bags. His eyeballs did not sizzle in their sockets, and his heart’s pistons did not seize. No barbarian lopped his head into a blood-soggy wicker basket, and no glinting ninja stars were zinged into his throat.
Actually, incredibly: nothing happened…
Eventually, of course, a lot does happen to Will as he seeks to lead a normal life, and in the process discovers friendship, danger, and skateboarding. I enjoyed all the characters in this book. Yes, his mother, Diane, is very mentally ill. But that is the genius of the book, or all good literature for that matter. Because really, how many of us parents haven’t secretly (or, frankly, in our over-protective society not so secretly) sometimes wished that we could slap a helmet on our child and keep them inside with us forever, safe from the harm we know very well will inevitably befall them in this imperfect world? As the novel reveals the terrible tragedies Diane has suffered, we come to an understanding of the monumental struggles she faces every day in just getting out of bed while also raising a child. That she is also an immensely creative and somewhat famous artist only makes her more compelling. Other characters, like Will’s friend Jonah or the mysterious vagabond Titus, are equally finely drawn.
I especially liked the language in this book. In particular, the traumatized and damaged Titus speaks in a way the twelve-year-old boys find weird, but that I found fascinating and evocative. When he says things like “invigorate your blood bank” and “those cruelties may revamp” you might scratch your head, but they make an odd sort of sense within the context of his past. I also enjoyed the setting in a rusting, seen-better-days Canadian town. Many of the characters knew Diane and her family in the past and thus allow her a level of privacy and tolerance hard to fathom in my suburban world. But they’re also real humans, with typical human failings.
The way mental illness is portrayed in our media and much of our literature disturbs and frustrates me. This is a novel that brings home the immediacy and human suffering involved in terms like “agoraphobia” and “depression”. Diane really does try to confront her demons and get better, and Will forces much of that on her through the very normal process of growing up. Skateboarding, that seemingly most dangerous of pursuits, provides a way for Will to challenge himself and his mother’s phobias, and it is the movie he makes at the end of the book of his tricks and falls with his mother’s old equipment that provides the title of the novel. Maybe I’m overly sympathetic to this book because my own son was a skateboarder, one who also chafed against any constraints on his freedom to experience the world. Sometimes we parents forget that our job is ultimately that of sending our children away, or as Will thinks as he hugs his mother:
How could he explain now that even though boys could trip and punch you, and wolves could feast on your flesh, and blood could gush from your body and bounce on the ice, and some kids didn’t even have parents to worry about them, and a boy could disappear from the world and nobody would care, Marcus (the first boy he met when he ventured outside) had been right — the Outside wasn’t all that dangerous. It was worth leaving for, if only to see it up close and to make a friend for a short while.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.