Sometimes it’s hard to pin down what attracts me to a book. In the case of If I Fall, If I Die, I think it was a combination of things. There was the parent-child relationship theme but I was also drawn to the skateboarding element. Even though I’m not a skateboarder, I have friends who are now or have been passionate about it. Possibly my subconscious mind also kicked in with an anxious thought or two, since I was spending a lot of time climbing around on ladders painting house trim when I saw the title. For whatever reason, I’m glad because If I Fall, If I Die was a very interesting novel and I would not have wanted to miss the opportunity to savor it.
When Will’s mother, Diane, got a divorce, she moved them from Toronto back to Thunder Bay, the small Canadian town where she grew up, and into the old house she had inherited. That happened when Will was just a toddler. It was kind of surprising since she thought she’d never go back there, especially given that her twin brother, Charlie, had been killed there. It never felt safe to her after that but desperate times called for desperate measures and she only planned for it to be temporary, until she could get back on her feet emotionally.
Maybe it was going back to Thunder Bay or maybe it was something that had been growing inside of her all along but Diane didn’t get better emotionally. Instead her world began to shrink rapidly and eventually she stopped leaving the house. And that meant Will couldn’t leave the house either. The world was not a safe place in Diane’s eyes. The only place she felt safe was Inside.
Of course there were also days when she didn’t even feel safe in certain areas Inside. Each room was named for a different city and sometimes those cities weren’t safe areas. They would then be off-limits until she had calmed enough to re-enter them, almost as if they had rejected her instead of the other way around. The only room that once banned could never regain her trust was the basement with its laundry room.
Will was used to his mom’s behavior and thought it normal. When she was having a bad time of it, he felt like she was in the Black Lagoon but he knew how to work with that and believed he could help her regain her equilibrium. He had a lot of freedom for a child who never went Outside. He loved painting his masterpieces and conducting experiments, and he was a sponge in terms of soaking up information every way possible. It was pretty much the only life he had ever known and he believed it was normal. Sure he was curious about the Outside but he accepted that this was the way it was and just got on with life.
“Of course he’d considered going Outside thousands of times – as he’d considered executing a double back flip or walking around with his feet magnetized to the ceiling or chainsawing a trapdoor in the floor – but had never dared…
The real reason was that he was her protector. Her guardian. From herself. From it: the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t like he was trapped. The doors were not locked. She made no rules, issued no commandments, decreed no penalties, and exacted no punishments. Staying Inside was something he’d invented, intuited, for her sake, to keep her from falling so deep she’d tremble and explode and weep all her tears and go dry and insubstantial as the dandelion fluff that occasionally coasted Inside like tiny satellites. He’d always known that if fear took her for good, he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.”
And then one day when he was eleven years old, things began to not look so normal to him. He knew from books and movies that everyone else went Outside at some point and it was time to conduct the great Outside experiment, an experiment he knew his mom would not be pleased about. She got horribly anxious when he just went to the front door to sign for one of their many deliveries.
“Will sometimes pictured their house surrounded by crackling electrical fences and froth-mouthed Dobermans, sheer cliffs falling from their doorstep to an angry sea.”
The day Will steps Outside is the day his life begins to change and will never be the same again. He will venture into the unknown, wearing his trusty helmet for protection, despite his mother’s overwhelming need to keep him safe from the world at any cost. He will meet kids his own age for the first time and learn their view of how life works is not at all the way he had imagined.
“’And may I introduce Will Cardiel,’ said Mr. Miller when the announcements concluded. ‘Will comes to us from…’ He scanned down his sheet. ‘Where do you come to us from, Will?’
‘Home,’ he said, and the man jumped. Will realized instantly he’d yelled it. He had no clue how loud he needed to talk in this big Inside for so many people to hear him, how to make enough sound to feed all their ears.
‘No, I mean which school,’ Mr. Miller asked while folding his arms.
‘Oh,’ said Will, in what he realized was a whisper. Kids were torqued in their desks, and Will hoped they could make out the forehead scar Marcus gave him enough to admire it. That morning, his mother had cautioned him on revealing too much to Outside people about their living situation. ‘Um, you wouldn’t know it,’ he said, juicing his memory for places he knew about. ‘It’s in San Francisco.’”
Will is a naïve genius of sorts, so much so that I was petrified for what might happen to him when he did finally take his first steps out into the world. He was completely and utterly unprepared for what awaited him there; the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that was perfect because we all experience that to a far lesser extent when we come face to face with reality vs. the myths our parents have spun for us. Will also has the burden of feeling he’s the only one who can save his agoraphobic mom from herself. This kid is someone I predict you’ll be rooting for from the moment he dons his trusty safety helmet and cracks open the front door.
If I Fall, If I Die is a touching, and at time very funny, coming of age tale. It deals with the differentiation every child has to face as that child matures and the changes every parent dreads. In this case, Will’s mom almost literally tries to wrap him in a cocoon and it’s apparent that she did him no favors in her well-meaning attempt to protect him from literally everything. And, yes, there is skateboarding along with lots of other adventures, benign and scary as hell. I won’t spoil the discovery of those for you though.
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If I Fall, If I Die was published on January 20, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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