Sunday, November 9, 2014

If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy was an English teacher in Riverside, Iowa before his Iowa National Guard unit was sent to Afghanistan in 2004. He had joined the National Guard like many other Americans, to help pay for his college education. The call to war was both unexpected and frightening. While on deployment, his wife, Amanda, sent him a copy of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabitha. This book helped Trent Reedy recover some of the hope that he would survive his term of active duty. Reedy corresponded with Paterson who encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a writer and who helped him gain entrance to Vermont College of Fine Arts' writing program. 

 If You're Reading This is Reedy's fourth novel, which focuses on a young teen who begins receiving his dead father's letters written to him seven years earlier while he served in Afghanistan. His father, worried he might not survive his time in Afghanistan wrote letters so his son would have something to remember him. These letters motivate the young man to change his life and help him come to terms with his father's death years earlier and in doing so to help his family heal.

For fifteen-year-old Mike Wilson grade ten is starting out similar to the past seven years - without his father. His father Mark, died seven years ago on August 28, 2005 in Afghanistan, leaving behind Mike, his younger sister, Mary and his mom, Allison, who has never recovered from the loss of her husband. Mike is a good student who has left behind his football playing days to focus on academics. But now that he's in his sophomore year he's been thinking of returning to playing. At lunch one day, Coach Carter, also Mike's history teacher, tells him time is running out, that he's missed the first set of practices and that he needs to join before the first game on Friday.

Mike works on Derek Harris's farm, helping him with various chores. Mike tells Derek that he really wants to play football but that his mother won't allow him to. Ever since his father's death, him mother has been overly protective. She works constantly, struggling to provide for Mike and Mary, and has given up on her dream of becoming a nurse.

Mike arrives home to thirteen year old  Mary telling him that a letter has arrived in mail for him. When Mike opens the letter he is astonished to discover that it is a letter from his father written when he first arrived in Afghanistan and to be sent to Michael only if he was killed in action and prior to his sixteenth birthday. The letter dated May 29, 2004 tells Mike about what his father did in the Army National Guard where he is a combat engineer, trained in battle tactics with the M16 and other weapons.  He writes that his buddy, Marcelo Ortiz has promised to deliver the letters to Mike. The first letter tells Mike a little about his father's teen years, partying at Nature Spot and giving him advice on high school. He gives Mike his first mission, to go for whatever it is he's been wanting to do. Mike sees this as his father telling him to go for the spot on the football team, so he fakes his mother's signature and hands in the form to Coach. Although his father's first letter mentions that his buddy Ortiz would send the letters, Mike discovers that Ortiz died the same day as his father meaning that someone else has taken on this task.

What follows is a series of five more letters dated from June 12, 2004 until Mike's birthday on September 22, 2004. Each letter reveals to Mike more about his father, who he was, how he met his mother and what he believes in. In each letter Mike's father sets out a mission for him to accomplish including doing something nice for his mother or sister, taking a chance on a girl he might like and working on getting a good mark in a school assignment.  His father also introduces him to the "cowboy way"  telling Mike,  "Out her in the middle of nowhere, we've had to figure out how to handle things on our own, like cowboys on the range. We might not always be completely sure how to solve a problem or carry out a mission, but we do it anyway. It's the Cowboy Way." 

Besides joining the football team, his father's letters lead Mike to gradually figure out how to handle a bullying teammate, Nick Rhodes, who continues to confront Mike because he is chosen to replace him on the team. The letters also encourage hime to take a chance on a relationship even though it might mean getting hurt. In Mike's case it is Isma Rafee, whose parents are from Iran and whose father teaches mathematics at the University of Iowa. He also tries to be patient with his overwhelmed mother who works at a nursing home and seems to be coping poorly with what happened seven years ago.

His father's letters create a sense of conflict in Mike and open more questions about his father. He feels he never really knew his father and it bothers him that he never knew how he died. Because the letters have revealed new things about his father, Mike is determined to find the mystery sender hoping this person will be able to fill in more of the gaps.Repeated online searches of those whom his father mentions in his letters turn up little information. Even a call to his father's old engineer company armory reveals few leads except that the mysterious sender of the letters wants to remain anonymous and is simply following the wishes of Mike's father. Sergeant Andrews who speaks with Mike tells him, "Everyone who knows what you want to know promised your father that we'd let you get through all his messages first, and we promised to let the man sending the letters do this his own way. In the Army, we keep promises..."

The last letter arrives as part of a huge package that contains four video clips. These video clips reveal some startling revelations including the final minutes on the base before his last mission and the identity of the mystery mailer. By the time Mike has watched all the videos his life is in chaos; he's been forced to quit the football team, his relationship with Isma has collapsed and he's being bullied by Nick Rhodes. When he talks to the mystery mailer, someone close to him, Mike learns how his father died. This leads Mike to the realization that he needs to confront his mother  and get her to talk about what happened to his father. He decides to use the Cowboy Way to help his family towards healing and forgiveness.

If You're Reading This definitely showcases the strengths of Trent Reedy- his understanding of the life of a soldier, the struggles families of soldiers deployed overseas encounter and the sense of loss and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a soldier. Authors successfully write about those things they know well and this comes across in Reedy's novel with respect to army life.

Reedy uses the vehicle of the letters from Mark Wilson to his son Mike, to portray life for the American soldiers in Afghanistan during the "war on terror" and as the means to establish a relationship between father and son. With regard to the latter, occasionally, Mark's letters lacked authenticity and bordered on mundane. In one letter he writes, "Anyway that brings me to the first thing I guess I wanted to tell you. Always have a book going. Always take it with you. That way, if you get stuck someplace...." In another he tells his son about a first date with too much description that makes it seem awkward. The letters also seemed coincidentally to synchronize almost perfectly with what was going on in Mike's life when he read them. Yet for the most part the letters felt very realistic for example when his father tells him about fighting honourably, about respecting women,  taking care of his mother and sister or when he encourages Mike to work hard in school.

Reedy has created in Mike a character with depth and honesty that feels genuine. He's already a fairly responsible teenager in contrast to his younger sister, Mary. While Mike cleans the house and has a part time job, Mary is more concerned with clothing, being with her friends and trying to blackmail her brother for money. Yet for all his good qualities, Mike undergoes considerable growth throughout the novel as he learns about his father, deals with new situations at school and a girlfriend.

At first Mike is struggling under the smothering blanket of his mother's over-protectiveness - which resulted in Mike leaving the one sport he really loves and is good at, football.  Desperate to be a part of school and to focus on something other than academics, Mike lies to his mom about what he's doing and to forge her signature on the permission form. But by the end of the novel he begins to recognize that in doing so he lacks the very integrity his father has encouraged him to have and one of the values Coach Carter has been working on with the team. He mans up, telling his mother who is furious at his lies. Nevertheless he maturely faces the consequences which involve more than just his mother's wrath, but also rejection from his teammates who don't know his reason for quitting. Overall Mike matures remarkably through the novel, helping his family work towards healing and also gradually learning that he has to defend the girl he likes, Isma, if he wants to continue his relationship with her.

Young male readers will love the exciting descriptions of the football practices and the games.Reedy manages to capture the tension during the games as well as the rivalry and camaraderie of the young players as they work towards creating a cohesive team. The dialogue between the teenage boys feels realistic, although maybe a bit sanitized, which is quite acceptable! Some readers may find that  novels moves a bit slowly in parts, but the author weaves the letters from Mike's father in often enough to keep interest high. Well written with an appealing cover.


Book Details:
If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of SCholasticInc.    2014
296 pp.

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