This is one of my favorite YA books. The story line is one that might cause you to first balk at reading it, but it truly is handled exceptionally well. 14-year-old Susie Salmon takes a shortcut through a cornfield on her way home from school and is lured into an underground den by her pedophile neighbor, Harvey. He rapes and murders her, a parent’s worst nightmare. He then disposes of her body in a way that will surely keep his secret forever. Well, maybe not.
Susie’s spirit goes on to her own personal heaven where she watches her family and friends who struggle to move on with their lives as she comes to terms with her own death. She meets up with a beloved dog as well as some of Harvey’s other victims. Lindsay, Susie’s sister, plays a crucial role in the pursuit of justice for her sister. Determined to prove that Harvey is her sister’s murderer, she sneaks into his house and finds a diagram of the underground den. Before she can get away without being caught, Harvey returns and a heart-stopping race ensues as Lindsey makes for an escape determined not to be his next victim.
Frustrations with local police will cause you to want to reach through the book to smack them into action. Unable to handle the events, Susie’s mother leaves her family for some odd quest to find herself causing much pain and suffering for the entire family, but mostly Buckley, Susie’s four-year-old brother. There is just enough supernaturalism to create an eerie suspense. Buckley sees Susie now and then, as she watches over him from her heaven, and her friends sense her presence at the most opportune times.
The comic relief for the heavy subject comes in the form of Susie’s grandmother, Lynn. An eccentric alcoholic, she moves in with the Salmons when her daughter takes off for her self-discovery quest. She brings love and acceptance to Lindsay and provides the mother-figure Buckley so desperately requires.
This is truly an excellent read and will have your fingers ready to hit on the next-page-button on your ereader. A movie was released in 2009, and amazingly was very well-done. The director, Peter Jackson, did not want to lose the mood of the book and succeeded in creating one of the few movies that actually complements its book. He stated in an interview that the reader has “an experience when you read the book that is unlike any other.” I totally agree and appreciate his efforts to keep the story line intact in his movie version.
Side note: there has been some religious criticism that claims Sebold has left Susie’s heaven “utterly devoid of any apparent religious aspect.” There is no apparent God, judgment nor any comment on the spiritualism of heaven. Sebold counters that her book was not meant to be religious in any way and that she was simply trying to create a heaven for Susie that was simple by design, with no intentions of depicting any religious ideas, and that would be a place of beauty and comfort for Susie. I am of the opinion that a parent should probably consider more carefully the actual subject of the book’s content, a young girl’s rape and murder, more so than the implied religious content. While God is seemingly absent in Susie’s heaven, it is up to the reader to make the religious connotations.
Sebold further commented that people take things and interpret in their own ways and that she cannot do anything about that; however, she believes her book “has faith and hope and giant universal themes in it, but it’s not meant to be.” This is one of those arguments that I present to my students – we can read a book and interpret it as to what we believe the messages are, but that does not necessarily mean those are the messages of the author? I love it.
I read a review about this book that is slightly weird, slightly unbelievable, and slightly helpful.
A mother lost her 13-year-old son, David, to a severe asthma attack. He died very quickly and unexpectedly. She bought this book to give to her 17-year-old daughter to “comfort” her in the wake of her brother’s absence. Before she could give it to her daughter, she started reading it and could not put it down. The mother dreamed the family went to visit David in “his heaven” and found comfort knowing he was ok. That was the slightly helpful part. The slightly weird part, bordering on unbelievable, was that she said she “teared up” more reading the book than she did the loss of her own son. Hmmm. Alrighty then. All of that to say, this book might be helpful to YA readers who have lost a sibling. Or perhaps those who are experiencing “belief” issues. I know some students who read this book who thought they might not believe in God. Here’s where intellectual freedom could be addressed, especially living in Middle Georgia in the middle of the “Bible Belt,” where kids might not have the freedom to believe as they choose. For YA readers who feel threatened having to believe as their parents do, and thus rebel, this book could offer a softer side of “religion” and issues of the after-life. That is my take and I grew up Baptist! I know many Baptists who would be offended in the offering of the above explanation in Sebold’s spiritual criticism; however, Susie’s “heaven” is at least a starting point to offer the explanation of an afterlife of some sort.
Publisher: Back Bay Books