The Honest Truth is a novel for younger teens about a boy struggling to come to terms with yet another bout of cancer and his feelings that life is no longer worth living.
The story opens with twelve year old Mark at the bus station in Wenatchee with his beloved dog, Beauchamp (Beau). He purchases two tickets for the bus to Spokane, supposedly for him and his father. Except Mark is not with his father. He's by himself with Beau and has a train ticket to Seattle because he's on a very important mission. A mission based on a promise.
Seven years ago Mark first got sick. Playing with his best friend and his neighbour, Jessica (Jess) Rodriguez outside, they watched as his mother went inside to answer the phone. And from where they were they saw Mark's mom crying. Jess is puzzled, thinking that maybe her mother has called Mark's mom. But for Mark that is when it all started.
When Mark goes missing, his parents call Jess to ask if she's seen him. Jess doesn't know and so Mark's parents call the police immediately informing them he is missing and that his disappearance is concerning because he's sick with cancer. At first Jess is not sure what to think but as she learns that Mark has not been found on the bus in Spokane as expected, she begins to think about why Mark might have left. This leads her to remember their secret spot for leaving each other messages.
Mark arrives in Seattle at nine in the evening. At an all night restaurant, he orders toast and scrambled eggs with a side of bacon for Beau who is hidden in his duffel bag. While he's eating his food, Mark sees the Missing Child report come on the television screen in the diner. He's terrified that someone in the diner will recognize him when his name and school picture are shown and the town of Wenatchee is mentioned. However, the waitress doesn't see the picture and thinks Mark is upset because he's led her to believe his father isn't around. From the television he learns that the police now know he did not make it to Spokane and are searching towns along the bus route believing he may have gotten off the bus enroute.
After leaving the diner, Mark is followed and robbed by a group of teenagers who beat him and take all but twenty dollars of his money. Suffering from a black eye, bruised and bleeding, Mark sneaks into a Mexican restaurant, San Cristobal's Restaurante, to use the washroom to clean up. When he is discovered by the three women cooks, Mark tells the women in Spanish that he needs to call his parents. However, instead of doing this Mark calls the Washington State Law Enforcement Tip Hotline to tell the officer that he's seen the missing kid in Moses Lake.
Meanwhile back in Wenatchee, Jess remembers their secret hiding place and she finds a note left by Mark for her. He tells her where he is going and why but he trusts Jess not to tell anyone. Marks parents learn that someone called the tip line with information that Mark was seen in Moses Lake but police know the tip is a false lead as they have traced the call to a restaurant in Seattle. Despite being deeply conflicted, Jess decides to keep Mark's secret even though she knows she can help find him.
"Mark's last wish: whether or not it came true depended on whether or not she told.
She knew how torn up his parents were; she knew how miserable their last twenty-four hours had been. She knew how sad and scared and desperate they were. They just wanted their sick son back. Whether or not they got him back depended on whether or not she told."
On the bus to Paradise, Mark meets six year old Shelby who is traveling with her older brother to visit their dad. Shelby's parents are divorced and she is understandably angry at her father. Mark encourages her to forgive her father. When he reaches Elbe, Mark manages to sneak onto the bus traveling to the Paradise Visitor's Center in Mount Rainer National Park. However, at Ashford, the driver kicks Mark off the bus. Feeling bad about what he's done, the driver offers to take Mark back to Elbe on his way down. Despite the fact that it is raining and there is a nasty storm brewing, with thirty-one miles to go, Mark decides to walk the rest of the way with Beau. With the weather worsening and Mark and Beau near exhaustion, can he make the final climb to Mount Rainer?
The Honest Truth is a book that deals with several very interesting issues surrounding seriously/terminally ill children, refusing treatment and death. Mark undertakes what he believes is a final journey to climb Mount Rainer. The impetus for this trip is based in the relationship he had with his beloved grandfather who loved to mountain climb and who planned to take Mark to climb Mount Rainer when Mark recovered from his cancer. Unfortunately, when Mark recovered, his grandfather became ill. Instead of taking that trip, Mark watched as a grandfather's health gradually declined until he passed away. His grandfather made Mark promise to climb Mount Rainer for him. When Mark's cancer learns his cancer has returned he is devastated but determined to climb the mountain and die there. Having no idea of the problems that might befall him, he saves his money, leaves a note for his best friend, Jess and sets out.
On his walk up the mountain road from Ashford, Mark meets Wesley, a park biologist who offers him a ride in his pickup truck and who recognizes Mark from the news bulletins. What he doesn't know is why Mark is on the mountain and why he has left home. Wesley tells Mark that he can relate to the worry and fear Mark's parents are experiencing because of the loss of his own son in Iraq. Mark wants Wesley to take him to the Visitor's Center so he can do the last leg of the climb he promised his grandfather. At first he tells Wesley that the only thing he has left to choose is his death. He's tired of "being that poor sick kid"and that "Maybe he wants to be the hero for once. Maybe he's had everything else taken away from him. His friends. His family. His future. All the stuff he wants to do. His life. So maybe all he's got left is his death. That's all that he's got. And so he wants it." Mark himself is tired of the treatments. He tells Wesley, "...And hospitals suck. And treatments suck. And friends watching you be sick sucks. And watching your parents cry sucks. So maybe he just wants to climb a mountain and disappear."
This creates intense conflict and confusion for Wesley who is still coping with the death of his son in Iraq. He wants to help Mark mainly because he couldn't help his own son. He definitely feels Mark's pain but he tells him that "Life's a tricky thing, idn't it son?...Figuring it all out, I mean...But sometimes there's just no knowing which way to go." He struggles with what to do. "How can I let you do it?...How can I let you go when I know...when I know..." In the end, Wesley drives him to the Visitor's Center because Mark tells him that he is only going part way up the mountain and will call his parents when he returns to the Vistor's Center, that he has gear and food.
"Please," I said. "I've gotten no choices. For my whole life, no choices. Let me choose this. Let me have this one thing before all my choices get taken away again."
When Mark first meets Wesley he wonders "...why anybody would try to stop me. All I wanted to do was die. That's the truth." However, once on the mountain, and having almost lost Beau, Mark realizes that he doesn't want to die, that he was overwhelmed by what has happened to him but that there are people along the way who have helped him and who still want to help him.
"I thought of all my sickness, all my anger, all my fear. All that was just the darkness, just the storm. I got lost in it. But there's always the other side of the storm. And the people who get you there."
All the world's a storm, I guess, and we all get lost sometimes. We look for mountains in the clouds to make it all seem lie it's worth it, like it means something. And sometimes we see them. And we keep going."
The reader never learns who called the hotline; if it was Wesley or Jess or perhaps even both. Left for the reader to consider are questions about how we help children cope with serious illnesses like cancer and how treatment can affect their quality of life. It becomes obvious that Mark was completely overwhelmed by the return of his cancer. We are never told exactly what Mark's prognosis was until the very end, but based on his mother's reaction, the reader knows that initially it was not good. Wesley indicates that the news reports state that the missing boy has a chance but only if he comes back for treatment. And after he is rescued and while recovering in hospital, Jess tells us that although it will take a miracle for Mark to survive, the doctors believe he has a chance.
The Honest Truth is told in two narratives, that of Mark and that of his friend Jessie who fills in the reader on the search for Mark as well as her own increasing conflict. Jessie faces a serious moral dilemma when she learns the truth about Mark's disappearance; to honour her friend's request not to tell even if it means his death, or to tell and save his life. A major theme in the novel is therefore the concept of friendship and loyalty; the friendship between Mark and Jessie and the friendship between Mark and his beloved dog, Beau.
The Honest Truth is a moving story about a young boy's rediscovery of the will to live, even in the face of terrible odds. It is about the honest truth that life is hard but that it is those around us who make that struggle worthwhile. As Wesley tells Mark, "We're all in this together."
Dan Gemienhart was inspired to write this novel by the death of friend (his sister's fiance) who loved mountain climbing and who also had cancer. A teacher-librarian, The Honest Truth is Gemienhart's debut novel. Look for more wonderful writing from this amazing children's author.
The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
New York: Scholastic Press 2015