I recently had the pleasure of reading an ARC of THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN, Amber J. Keyser's debut YA novel, coming out with Carolrhoda Lab on October 1.
DISCLAIMER: Yes, the fantastic Amber is my co-author on our QUARTZ CREEK RANCH series of middle-grade books. But THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN stands completely on its own two feet and did not factor into this review.
Rakmen isn’t your standard teenager: after the death of his baby sister, he’s racked with guilt, and his parents’ relationship is on the rocks. Worse, one of his school teachers is in the dead baby club, too—and her daughter, Jacey, attaches to Rakmen like a barnacle. When home starts to fall apart for Rakmen, he’s sent to live with Jacey and her mother in a cabin in the Canadian wilderness for the summer.
Though THE WAY BACK starts out quietly, down in the damp basement of Promise House, where grieving parents (and their children) come for support group, the action ramps up when Rakmen winds up in the care of a woman who he fears might be on the edge. Leah is wrestling with the death of her own child—and when things at the cabin go wrong, she whisks Rakmen and Jacey away on a canoeing trip that Rakmen is sure will end in disaster.
And thus begins an emotionally-fraught wilderness adventure. THE WAY BACK wrestles with so much: grief, mourning, guilt. And at the heart of it all? The struggle to move on after we’ve lost something utterly dear and precious.
The Canadian lakes are a glittering backdrop for Rakmen’s quest to forgive himself. Keyser writes with both an intimate knowledge of nature, and deep wonder of both flora and fauna. The intensely emotional prose gives the reader glimpses of a natural world that can only be reached by canoe—through a transplanted city boy’s lens.
As anyone who’s ever run away to the woods to escape life’s struggles knows, the wilds can heal and guide you… all while harboring perils of their own. Will Rakmen be prepared?
THE WAY BACK is both a guide to grief, and a thrilling survivalist adventure, all in one page-turning package. Death is a subject rarely tackled in the way Keyser tackles it, with wit, heart, and a willingness to look grief right in the face.
Surprisingly, I found Jacey to be the most compelling character—wanting desperately to talk about the dead, to understand and pull apart the complicated emotions that hurricane around death, while everyone around her is too broken to help her on her own quest. But the sibling-like relationship that sprouts around Jacey and Rakmen is a salve at the novel’s thrilling climax, and while no story of grief can tie up neatly, THE WAY BACK offers a satisfying conclusion.
Highly recommended reading for both teens and adults.
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