“Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don’t know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right.”
–This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales
Full disclosure: I haven’t read This Song Will Save Your Life. I was merely looking for a quote about YA books, and of course, google gave me quotes from YA books, and a blog post from Barnes and Noble titled “12 YA Quotes that Perfectly Express the Teen Condition.” Now, I don’t know if the quotes do or not. It’s been a really long time since I was a teen. And while the biology of adolescence hasn’t changed, adolescent life today seems far more complicated than it was in the 80s.
Another thing that hasn’t seemed to change much is that quest for identity. Who am I? What is my place in this world? And I guess this is good for Erik Erikson because it helps to prove his theory of psychosocial development. A lot of YA books revolve around this quest for identity. The literature I read in high school that spoke to me, Lord of the Flies, Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock,” ultimately could be boiled down to figuring out who we are as a society. The line from Prufrock that first grabbed me was “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”
And isn’t that true?
Especially now in the age of social media–we prepare our faces to meet the faces that we meet—all social media is is a carefully (or maybe not) crafted image or identity. Essentially this is the “Christmas Letter” 365 days a year. So of course teens gravitate to newest and latest social media sites. They craft their story and their identity for the whole world to see.
But what if that whole world was a town in Alaska population 247 (or so)? A town that is only accessible by plane? A town that has spotty internet and cell service at best? How do you create an identity when the community has known your family for generations?
Under the guise of mystery/thriller this is exactly the question that Marieke Nijkamp tackles in Before I Let Go.
In a nutshell, Corey and her family leave Lost Creek, Alaska and move to Winnipeg. Corey promises her best friend Kyra she will return, but just days before Corey is about to visit Kyra commits suicide. Corey knows something is wrong. And she returns to Lost Creek as scheduled to say goodbye and figure out what really happened.
Through Kyra’s letters, diary entries, flashbacks, and script, Nijkamp reveals the Kyra’s identity and the town’s changing identity, creating an almost Hitchcockian eeriness to the novel.
The last thing the bush pilot says to Corey is “’Be careful in Lost Creek. Not everything is as it seems here’” (Nijkamp 26). Corey shakes off the comment because she grew up in Lost Creek. She knows the town. She understands the identity. Towns, after all, can’t change their identity.
Piper Morden, whose name reminded me of death, picks Corey up at the airstrip and tells Corey, “’Things changed after you left’” (Nijkamp 26). Corey starts to get that “You can’t go home again feeling.” And as she encounters townsperson after townsperson, she sees how much things have changed in seven months. These people are not the people she left.
Corey continually looks at how they have changed. In order to keep with the genre, Corey’s character does not reflect on how she’s changed being away from Lost Creek. She clearly has changed and grown in ways she’s not even aware of—or she might have answered Kyra’s letters.
The novel, however, explores Kyra and the ways that she has changed and evolved. We never get a really clear picture of what she was struggling with after Corey left because there’s no one, not even Kyra, who’s reliable enough to tell us.
The one thing the reader is very much aware of is that Kyra is afraid of being left behind—of being forgotten. As I read, I could hear Simple Minds, “Don’t You Forget About Me” playing in the background of Kyra’s sections. While there was no clear connection to the song, it could very much be Kyra’s theme song:
“Won’t you come see about me?
I’ll be alone, dancing you know it baby
Tell me your troubles and doubts
Giving me everything inside and out and
Love’s strange so real in the dark
Think of the tender things that we were working on
Slow change may pull us apart
When the light gets into your heart, baby” (Forsey and Schiff).
The movie The Breakfast Club changed the band Simple Minds’ identity for years to come. They were unknown in the US until their song was used in the John Hughes’ classic.
The Breakfast Club is an iconic 80s teen movie, but it’s still very relevant today because, like a lot of YA, and like Kyra, the characters are seeking their place in the high school social structure. It is so clearly a movie about identity that the assignment the characters have is a 1,000 word essay describing who they think they are. Brian sits at his table musing, “Who are you? Who are you? I am the walrus.”
At the beginning of the movie, each character is a stereotype of a high school group, and as they get to know each other, their carefully prepared faces change. They realize that they are more alike than different. Brian makes this very clear when he asks: “Um, I was just thinking, I mean. I know it’s kind of a weird time, but I was just wondering, um, what is gonna happen to us on Monday? When we’re all together again? I mean I consider you guys my friends, I’m not wrong, am I?”
In a flashback in Before I Let Go, Corey experiences exactly what Brian brings up at the end of The Breakfast Club. She is at the local hangout after school sitting with Piper and Sam Flynn. A comment is made about Kyra not fitting in, Corey defends her and things get heated. At one point, Corey remarks to the reader, “I would’ve moved to another table, but there was nowhere else to go” (Nijkamp 40). Corey could have very easily gotten up and left. No one else beckoned her to their group when she walked in. No where else to go was an excuse; Corey was seeking acceptance and seeking a way to fit in. A few moments later she says to Piper, “’It’s no harder to be Kyra’s firend than it is to be yours or anyone else’s’” (Nijkamp 40). Piper’s reply is biting: “’I think you’re a saint for putting up with her’” (Nijkamp 40). At this point, Corey can either stand up for her friend or seek acceptance with her peer group.
“She smiled and nudged the plate a little further. She didn’t want me to be offended. And I was a coward, not telling her how much her words hurt. Instead, I accepted a cookie, as a peace offering, and told her what I knew to be true.”
“’She’s one of us, Piper’” (Nijkamp 40-41).
Corey’s concern is that Piper and the others in Lost Creek see Kyra as they want to. Kyra has not carefully prepared a face for the town. She shows them who she is, and they struggle to handle it. Once Corey leaves, the town is able to craft an identity for Kyra, and it’s Kyra who then struggles to live within those confines.
This is much like The Breakfast Club. At the end of the movie, Brian leaves a letter in place of the essays they are all supposed to write.
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain… …and an athlete… …and a basket case… …a princess… …and a criminal.
Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”
The characters in The Breakfast Club clearly learn something about themselves and others, and hopefully, grow a bit as a result, Corey also learns something about the town of Lost Creek and the community she thought of as almost family. In the end, Corey learns about herself as well.
Adults may view YA as dark and depressing, but ultimately, it’s simply about the growth of identity. Emotional and social growth can be difficult, and YA reflects this back to its audience and hopefully shows them that preparing their face for the faces they meet is a normal activity that everyone has to go through.