The many faces of Ethan
by Chella McClelland
The Ethan I Was Before is a story of family, friendship, heartbreak, and growth. Ultimately, it is an exploration into the way life changes you in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Twelve-year-old Ethan is in the throes of guilt and loss when the novel begins, believing himself to be responsible for the death of his best friend. He and his family have uprooted their lives, moving from Boston to a small town in rural Georgia, in order to give Ethan relief from his hardship and an opportunity for a fresh start. Despite this and other extreme efforts from his parents, nothing seems to alleviate his despondency—nothing, that is, until he befriends Coralee, a clever little girl with a big heart and some tall tales, who gives him what he feels is a second chance at friendship.
Because of trauma that goes undefined for a good portion of the book, Ethan’s life is divided into rigid categories of the Before and the After. He knew who he was before the tragedy struck—daring, athletic, happy—but he is discombobulated and struggles to reorient himself afterwards. Losing his best friend, his good relationship with his family, his interests, his school, and even his city, Ethan is no longer recognizable even to himself, especially to himself.
Author Ali Standish impeccably conveys Ethan’s heartbreak at such devastating loss and thoroughly demonstrates his inability to move past it. He is a highly reliable, relatable, and empathetic character whose struggles are so tangible that the reader yearns to relieve him of some of his burden. The reader feels a sensation of helplessness as he plods through the days and aches for nothing other than to be with someone he can no longer be with.
Ethan is not the only multi-dimensional character. There is his grandpa’s struggle to get past his own heartbreak; there is Coralee’s family dysfunction; there is his mother’s childhood baggage. Nearly every other character is fleshed out enough to give the reader glimpses of rich, intricately woven inner lives. Every relationship in the book is both complex and realistic.
Set in Georgia, the location becomes a character of its own, impossible to deny or ignore. The South is present in the diction and dialogue of the characters. It is present in the names of characters and places, in the weather, in the mannerisms. It is present in the endangered red wolves, which later become a crucial part of the story.
Something changes about halfway through the novel. It seems to diverge from the story of Ethan’s healing to something more akin to a mystery when Coralee and Ethan come into possession of several expensive pieces of jewelry. Then the story veers into something like a thriller when Ethan and Coralee brave the outdoors in the zenith of a hurricane. Initially there is some question about how these various components of the story will pertain to the beginning, but it is quickly evident that these pieces are easily reconcilable. All aspects of this book are woven together seamlessly. When the reader has questions, there will ultimately be answers.
The pace in which the story is told is drawn out, but never once does it feel slow. Rather, this measured clip adds to the story’s allure and suspense. What exactly happened to Ethan’s friend? What did his brother say to him that wounded him so severely, and what mounted a barrier between them? What is Coralee hiding? Why is Ethan’s mother’s relationship with her father so strained? Why does Ethan feel so guilty? What really happened to Kacey? All of those questions and more are answered in due time, but the reader must possess an element of patience.
Though this is a novel intended for young adults, it holds appeal for mature audiences as well. It speaks volumes about the power of friendship, family, healing, and forgiveness. It is a remarkable thing to witness Ethan’s recovery, to watch him grow and heal from start to finish. The Ethan at the end of the book is shockingly different than the Ethan at the start, but he ultimately evolves into a person that is whole instead of a person that is fragmented.
Wanna go? Novelist Ali Standish will be at Scuppernong Books on Monday, May 22 at 7 PM to talk about her debut novel.