Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Names They Call Us by Emery Lord

Lucy Esther Hansson saves the day for her friend Brianna at prom but can she save her mother from cancer?

Prom night turns into the most difficult night of Lucy Esther Hansson's life. After rescuing friend Brianna who is dumped by her date at prom, Lucy and boyfriend Lukas stay to help clean up. Principal Cortez tips Lucy off when he tells her they are thinking of her mother. This immediately upsets Lucy because it reminds her of freshman year when her mother had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy but did not require chemo or a mastectomy. Suspecting her mother might be ill again Lucy calls home and her mother confirms her worst fears. Lukas drives a devastated Lucy home. At home her mother tells Lucy that a lump was found during a check-up two weeks prior and the biopsy confirmed cancer. She is scheduled for surgery on Monday morning and that her father will be telling his congregation in the morning.

During the service, Lucy who is angry at God, decides to leave before her father informs his congregation. Lukas is shocked at Lucy's anger and her lack of faith in God. Her mother tries to reassure her. The next day, May 1st, Lucy's mom has both breasts removed and spends two days in hospital. The month of May is filled with graduation parties, exams and her mother's recovery from surgery as well as many doctors appointments and tests. The tests reveal that Lucy's mother's cancer is in her lymph nodes and she requires six cycles of chemotherapy.

In June, before Lucy and her parents set out for their summer camp at Holyoke, Lucy's mother approaches her about the possibility of spending the summer Daybreak, the camp across the lake. Lucy's mother's friend Rhea Mills runs Daybreak, which just had a counselor quit. Her mother suggests that the camp which is for young people who have experienced trauma in their lives, would give Lucy a chance to make new friends and better help her cope with her mother's situation. Lucy refuses but her mother tells her that she needs her to go so that she will know she will be okay without her.

Lucy is thrown another curve when she meets Lukas and he tells her he wants to put their relationship "on pause". Upset that Lukas has talked with everyone but her, Lucy agrees. Lukas wants to "reassess" their relationship when he comes to visit her at Holyoke in July.

Lucy arrives at Holyoke and meets Rhea who shows her to Cabin 3A where she will be staying with nine campers and two other counsellors. Anna Miroslaw, one of the counsellors gives Lucy a tour of the camp and introduces her to counsellors, Henry Jones, Mohan Tambe, Keely Simmons and Garcia. When a fight breaks out between two campers, Lucy feels overwhelmed and has an asthma attack, but Anna reassures her that feeling overwhelmed is common.

From the beginning Lucy finds herself attracted to Jones, a tall, dark-skinned counsellor with a big smile. They find an immediate connection because like Lucy, Jones is a musician, he plays trumpet. Jones draws Lucy into the his group and also helps her fit in by having her accompany the kids choir for the talent show. Lucy gradually begins to become part of the group, accompanying Anna, Simmons, Tambe and Jones on their Friday night parties, saving Neveah who has an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Lucy discovers that these counsellors have been at Daybreak for several years.

But as the weeks pass, Lucy begins to form friendships that help her understand life and resilience of the human spirit. Daybreak is full of secrets and secret wisdom that help Lucy cope with this stressful time in her life.


The Names They Call Us is about a young girl's journey to come to terms with her mother's illness in the midst of growing into adulthood. Lord who breaks her story into four parts, spanning from April to August, has populated her story with a cast of very diverse characters; transgender Anna Miroslaw, dark-skinned Jones and Rhea, Rose Min who is Asian, pregnant fourteen-year-old Tara and a host of characters from various backgrounds.

Lucy, daughter of a pastor, staunch Christian and an accomplished pianist and captain of the swim team, experiences two stressful events just before the beginning of summer; her mother's cancer has returned and her long-time boyfriend Lukas decides to take a break from their relationship. The return of her mother's cancer creates a severe crisis of faith for Lucy.  She begins struggling with her faith because she believed that if she prayed to God he would heal her mother. Instead her mother is ill again and she sees God has having broken his end of the bargain. "I prayed while scrubbing dishes after dinner. I prayed with every stroke, back and forth, back and forth, down my swim lane. I prayed while walking between classes...I should have begged." In the bathroom she questions, "...I think up at God: We had a deal. How could you? How could you?"

Lucy feels completely betrayed by God. She has been praying in thanksgiving all the time, for her parents, for Lukas and her Aunt Rachel. At church the Sunday after she finds out, Lucy finds she doubts Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. "Really, God? Where? I mean, seriously. Give me a dove with white flapping wings. A rainbow stretched over our house. Give me literally anything -- a feeling, a holy light, a burning bush..." Lucy looks at the statue of Jesus Christ above the altar and feels betrayed and alone. "He stands on the altar, stone arms wide and ivory palms up--a pose that used to look welcoming. Now He looks halfway to a shrug. Your mom has cancer again and there's nothing you can do about it. He's right. I feel helpless, hapless, planless."

This results in Lucy running out of church and when confronted by Lukas, she tells him, "I trusted God would heal my mom, and He did. Except He didn't." She finds Lukas's attitude patronizing because he doesn't have a sick mother. Lucy finds herself questioning everything about God. When Lucy's mother asks her to attend Daybreak, Lucy tells her mother that she needs to be around Christian kids, but her mother tells Lucy that faith isn't caught from other people. Lucy finds herself "hurt and confused by a God that has never hurt or confused me before."

when she visits Holyoke after her first week at the Daybreak camp, Lucy marvels at the faith of the young people there. "...I'm jealous --disgustingly, hotly jealous. My heart aches like the sore muscle it is. I covet their innocence, their easy belief. They trust the world; they trust God. They see him everywhere. Like I did, my whole life, and I didn't even know to appreciate how good I had it." Lucy puzzles over her mother's choice to read the book of Psalms, about praising and glorifying God when her mother is so sick. She also attempts to have her mother allow her to return to Holyoke for the rest of the summer. Lucy mentions the pregnant fourteen-year-old and is shocked when her mother expresses her concern that Lucy make her feel loved and supported. Lucy's parents have always taught her to wait until marriage for sex, and she can't understand her mother's disappointment with Lucy being shocked. However Lucy's visit ends with her trying to see traces of God in everything, just as her father mentioned in his sermon.

At camp Lucy finds herself still talking to God. She asks Him to help her be the good friend to Anna who it turns out is transgender. As she begins to learn the stories of the campers and the counsellors Lucy begins to feel gratitude for what she has - two parents who love her. "I've been so angry-- at God and the universe and cancer--that I think it's been hard to touch gratitude. That my mom can get treatment, that we have a support system, that I was born into such love."

From Henry though, Lucy learns the most. Henry lost his sister who committed suicide when he was ten years old. Despite being angry at God, Henry decided to chose to believe in Him. Lucy wonders if she too can choose to have faith. Over the next few days Lucy finds some measure of peace, "When I try to pray, I don't feel like a crazy person talking to a man in the sky. It feels like me choosing to ask the God I've always known for guidance. Even if one of my prayers is Please help me stop being so mad at You."

From her friends, Lucy learns how to cope with her mother's cancer and rediscovers her own faith. From Henry Lucy learns that real life is not an escape from trouble and that one cannot live in a bubble. Daybreak shows Lucy people go on living in spite of terrible things that happen. "Hasn't Daybreak shown me, day after day, that people can outlast unbelievable pain? That human hearts are like noble little ants, able to carry so much more weight than you'd expect. Hasn't my mom shown me that, every day of my life?" Keely tells Lucy, "You can be okay again. Just a different kind of okay than before." The Daybreak counsellors and campers are proof that people can survive terrible things and still have a good life.

By the end of the novel Lucy chooses to believe in a God that forgives people in a moment of despair and anger. "If I'm going to believe, it has to be in a God who would forgive my father for this word. I have to believe in a God who knows how much my father loves my mother. I have to believe in a God who would sit beside my father in that car, place His hand on my father's back. And maybe it took me until now--until this terrible moment-- to realize, but I do."

The Names They Call Us is a novel that explores a whole host of themes besides faith; that of friendship, family, dealing with loss and forgiveness. In some ways the novel takes on too much. There are several subplots; Lucy and Lukas, Lucy and her new relationship with Henry, and the secret past of her mother that Lucy uncovers at Daybreak in the midst of a medical crisis. The novel takes its title from the names people give others when they sometimes speak without thinking. For example, when Lucy's mom asks her to consider going to Daybreak Lucy refers to the camp as "the hippie camp".As Anna gives Lucy a tour around Daybreak, she refers to the Christian camp Holyoke as "It's some crazy church camp..." Lucy says nothing to counter Anna's remark because "It's just that...telling people you're religious can make them assume a whole list of things about you."

Overall a very modern take on faith in the contemporary genre of young adult fiction.

Book Details:

The Names They Call Us by Emery Lord
New York: Bloomsbury                       2017
388 pp.

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