Monday, December 21, 2009

After the Headlines, There's More to the Story

AFTER by Amy Efaw
4Q 3P; Audience: J/S (High School)

Devon Davenport did not have sex. She did not get pregnant. She did not give birth. She did not wrap the baby in a towel, then place it in a garbage bag and put it in a dumpster. She couldn’t have. But that’s exactly what the police, the doctors, and her lawyer say she did, and they have the evidence to prove it.

Locked in a juvenile detention center, charged with attempted murder and possibly to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile, Devon has to explain to her lawyer what happened. But how can she put into words what she has spent the last nine months refusing to admit even to herself?


I admire Gail Giles for her ability to write with great sensitivity about teens who have committed a terrible act. She doesn’t excuse what they do, but she makes us see the whole person and the whole story, reminding us not to look at events in a vacuum. By the end, we may still not be able to forgive, but we may at least be able to understand. With After, Amy Efaw proves herself a worthy companion to Giles in this regard.

I am not generally a fan of books written in the present tense, but it really worked for me in After. It made it impossible to keep Devon’s emotions and reactions at a distance. From the very first scene, Devon lying on the couch so numb and so in shock that she is barely aware of what is happening around her, I got into her head. I felt first her confusion, then her blind panic, fear, and humiliation as she began to comprehend her situation. At times I felt my own gut tightening in response to Devon’s tension, particularly as she began the painful process of not only facing the truth at last but of revealing it to someone else.

Clearly, what was very effective for me doesn’t strike everyone the same way. Though the majority of customer reviews on Amazon are positive, there are some negative comments as well. Several of them disliked the writing. Honestly? I think they missed the point. True, the prose does not always flow smoothly and lyrically. But why should it? The book is about a girl who can’t articulate what made her commit such a heinous crime. Lyrical, flowing language would be inappropriate for the story being told and the character experiencing it. I thought Efaw nailed it.

I wanted to slap Devon’s mother silly. Talk about abandoning your child!

How she views herself and how others view her is of the utmost importance to Devon. Her whole life has been centered around being a responsible, trustworthy, successful person. She can’t allow any cracks in that persona. She isn’t lying because she doesn’t want anyone to know what she did. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to know what she did. The thought that everyone else knows devastates her. One of the scenes that affected me most takes place in the courtroom when Devon discovers that she has not lost the respect of her coach and (especially) of a former employer. I can’t remember now if Devon cried, but I have to admit that I did.

Should we feel sympathy for a girl who did such a terrible thing? Some people will be upset by the very idea. But it’s important to make the distinction between feeling sympathy and excusing her actions. Sympathizing and understanding why she did it doesn’t absolve her of responsibility, and Efaw acknowledges that. I was impressed by the choice made in the end, and it proved to me that Devon really is the kind of person we heard about from people testifying on her behalf. I hate what Devon did, but I can’t hate the person who did it. Amy Efaw, mission accomplished. (And please don’t make us wait another nine years for book number three!)

This is a hard book to read, but well worth it. It's also another excellent choice for a book discussion group.

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