Emilie Day's "normal" life ended one day in the middle of elementary school, when she suddenly had a seizure. The uncontrolled nature of her newly diagnosed epilepsy meant that homeschooling was the only suitable option--one which worked well for a time thanks to the support of her father and the addition of a beloved service dog. But it's now three years after Emilie's father died, and her relationship with her mother has become strained. Thanks to a stabilizing medication, it is finally plausible for her to transition back into public school--which is precisely what her therapist is recommending. But Emilie has trouble seeing the shift as anything but an ongoing opportunity to embarrass herself in front of new friends and classmates.
The obligation of having to explain to all of her friends and close acquaintances what they need to do and watch for if she experiences a grand mal seizure--complete with possible vomiting and/or loss of bowel/bladder control--is understandably unappealing to her. Especially when one of the people she may need to tell happens to be a surprisingly interesting basketball player who might be vying for boyfriend material. And her mother's recent odd behavior isn't making things any easier in Emilie's mind...
Told in a remarkably unobtrusive first-person present-tense format, THE THING WITH FEATHERS is a coming-of-age story centered around new beginnings, old grief, and coming to terms with an "invisible" disability. I liked the subject matter and voice in the blurb enough to give this a go, but it was the first line that truly snared me: "My mother lost her mind today, and I'm going to prison." A terrific introduction to the main character, Emilie, in a single (and perplexingly snarky) sentence. From there the author doesn't just grab initial attention, she holds onto it with crisp writing, insightful emotional depth, and a relatably smart, sarcastic heroine.
Kudos to the author on such solid characterization of a service animal. Hitch (Emilie's seizure-sensing golden retriever) feels immediately believable, and his functionality is explained and expanded on at natural intervals. What's more, the additional significance and personality Emilie ascribes to his actions and facial expressions often tells readers as much (if not more) about her own mindset as it does about the dog himself.
"If Hitch were a person, he'd be Mother Theresa or Gandhi or someone who treated all living creatures with the respect they deserve. It's depressing how my dog is a better human being than I am."
I'd never before heard the theory that Emily Dickinson may have been Epileptic--but it would certainly explain both her reclusive nature (especially during an era in which the condition was misunderstood and stigmatized) and her broodingly hopeful compositions. That tie-in was a welcome organic thread, offering opportunity for both educational points and outside literary input; without beating readers over the head with it. There isn't anything surprising about the plot itself--no twists or anything you won't see coming from early on. The primary antagonist (outside of Epilepsy itself) struck this reader as almost disappointingly toothless. But the story's execution is charming and the ending pulls everything together with a satisfying and ultimately hopeful symmetry.
This is the kind of strong writing and memorable, empathy-expanding content this reader loves to see in contemporary YA. I would unhesitatingly thrust this book into the hands of my goddaughters.
Hoyle is a talented new fiction voice, and an author I'd highly recommend keeping an eye on!
*"Some people see the liquid and think half full. Others only see the air and think half empty. Sometimes I get the sense Chatham sees it all, which is kind of terrifying. I don't know if I want him to see me--the real me."
"Hope is the thing with feathers--
that perches in the soul--
And sings the tune without words--
And never stops--at all."