by Brian Mandabach
“You have to love your whole life, Cassie. Each moment is the only thing that’s real. If you damn even one moment, you risk damning the whole thing. Think about it. Each moment arises and then slips away so quickly – if you’re not living in the present, if you’re living in the past or for the future, you’ll miss it, because now happens only once.”
It’s more than good advice. It’s the best advice Cassie Sullivan’s ever heard. Unfortunately, by the time she hears it, she’s already shot herself in the foot.
From her staunch refusal to listen to CD’s because ‘digital music sounds robotic,’ and isn’t real, to her strict vegan diet, to her hatred for suburban life and her longing to live alone in the woods, Cassie is an original. Brilliant, moody, perceptive and interested in truly thinking about world events, Cassie has gotten dangerously bored in school, especially since her defense of Darwin has gotten her labeled as the school antichrist, and her refusal to sing so-called “patriotic” songs for a September 11th Memorial assembly has gotten her nicknamed ‘Osama O’Sullivan’ and kicked out of show choir. In a fever of what they assume is patriotism, Cassie’s classmates react, and make her life a nightmare. Cassie withdraws into her journal, rereading Tolkien and the writing of Kurt Cobain, and writing stories which concern the adults around her.
Even if she’s the school outcast, she can survive the hundreds of notes shoved into her locker, the hazing the abuse, and losing her few friends. Even if the teachers don’t like her and her parents aren’t sure what’s up with her, she can survive, right? But the question ringing in Cassie’s head asks if anything is worth the hassle – if anything good remains to be saved, if anyone still has a conscience, a heart, and a brain in the hypersensitive, post-September 11th world around her.
To be, …or not? Suddenly, that’s the only question.
Though Brian Mandabach creates in Cassie a character very unlike the average middle school student, the voice is real. Sarcastic, self-righteous, and idealistic, Cassie struggles with becoming, and also with being brighter than everyone else and despising them – and herself – for various reasons. Themes of depression, prejudice, peer pressure and religious conservatism are familiar territory in YA fiction, but older readers may find that Mandabach allows Cassie and some of her detractors to get off a little too easily. While she has been brought up to be a critical thinker, Cassie is remarkably rigid and refuses to allow that others have reasons for their negative behavior – most notably, fear-- and immaturity makes her miss this – and her own fear, entirely. Still, solid writing and a nonconformist heroine may make Cassie a kindred spirit to other teens fighting toward maturity.
This review was first published in the March/April '08 issue of The Edge of the Forest Children's Literature Monthly.