The Ethan I Was Before
Once in a while, a character within a book manages to find its way into the reader’s heart and refuses to depart, even after the last page is read. THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE is the story of just such a character, 12-year old Ethan Truitt.
Ethan lives a rather average life as a happy, well-adjusted middle schooler in Boston, Massachusetts. He has a good relationship with his parents, his older brother Roddie, and Roddie’s girlfriend, Grace. Ethan’s true soulmate is his best friend, Kacey Reid. The Reids live next door to the Truitts, and the kids grew up as close as siblings. Although many of their schoolmates’ friendships fell wayside to adolescence, Ethan and Kacey have remained steadfast, true to each other and inseparable.
One devastating day, the unthinkable happens at a friend’s party. Although Ethan is not emotionally capable of fully facing the events, the reader understands that “the incident” involves a terrible accident in which Kacey is lost to Ethan, and he is profoundly and permanently changed.
"Debut author Standish masterfully weaves a striking tapestry of emotions, events, and relationships....Ethan’s voice is true, real, and painstakingly honest...."
The Truitts relocate to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia, to live with Ethan’s Grandpa Ike. They claim they’ve moved south to help Grandpa in his old age, but the true reason is to give Ethan a fresh start in a new town with fewer reminders of Kacey. Ethan has been depressed, has tried to run away, and his behaviors concern and frighten his parents. No one is happy about the move; high school junior Roddie is bitter and resentful to leave his star status on the baseball team, Grandpa is hostile and outraged that his daughter has taken over his house and dares to throw away possessions she deems useless, and Ethan is caught in a wave of sadness and guilt over the loss of Kacey and the family’s need to find a fresh start, for which he holds himself accountable.
Life in Georgia challenges Ethan with a new home routine, a new school and the insensitivity of others in both places. Despite his sadness, Ethan is observant and sensitive to those around him. Braving the school bullies, Ethan finds the courage to stand up for the two underdog friends he has made. At home, he attempts to communicate his feelings to his parents, and he is the first one to forge a relationship with Grandpa, whom Ethan understands must, like himself, feel isolated and lonely. When it becomes clear that his overprotective parents are not being honest with him, Ethan describes his feelings of disappointment, disillusionment and isolation in terms which break the reader’s heart. Ethan learns a lot about himself as he looks through the eyes of a new friend, the intrepid Coralee Jessup, who carries a few secrets and disappointments of her own. An interesting and ultimately suspenseful subplot involving a missing wolf skillfully develops both Ethan’s and Coralee’s characters and allows the reader to savor the emotional healing which Ethan undergoes as he realizes that he is still deserving of happiness in his life and that it is okay for him to make new friends even if he has lost his best friend.
Debut author Standish masterfully weaves a striking tapestry of emotions, events, and relationships which climax in a dangerous tropical storm affecting the residents of Palm Knot. Ethan’s first-person narration forces the reader to accompany him step-by-step through the process of facing “the incident,” coming to terms with the pain and finality of loss, and understanding his survivor’s guilt. Ethan’s voice is true, real, and painstakingly honest as he tries to reconnect with his family, forgive the Ethan he was before, and move forward. Standish has crafted a beautiful child in Ethan, who seems as real to this reader as a child could be, and whom I felt the urge to hold, hug, and reassure. There is no preaching or moralizing here, just a perfectly told bildungsroman tale which resonates on an emotional level unlike any middle grade story of loss which I have read. The final, perfect page of the novel, so touching it hurt, is one of the best and most satisfying conclusions I have read in middle grade literature. Early in the story, Ethan nods his agreement when Coralee asks him, “Every creature should have someone looking out for it. Don’t you think?” THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE prompts me to wonder, whimsically, might it be possible for a fictional character to have a soul? Well, Ethan Truitt with his gentle soul, whether real or metaphoric, has found his way into a little corner of this reader’s heart, and I am quite certain that it will be his always.
The highest of recommendations for all middle grade and older readers.
Reviewed by Donna Rasmussen on January 3, 2017