Mike was seven when his father was killed in mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan. Eight years later, the family still hasn't recovered: Mike's mom is overworked and overprotective; his younger sister Mary feels no connection to the father she barely remembers; and in his quest to be "the man of the family," Mike knows he's missing out on everyday high school life. Then, out of the blue, Mike receives a letter from his father -- the first of a series Dad wrote in Afghanistan, just in case he didn't come home, meant to share some wisdom with his son on the eve of Mike's 16th birthday. As the letters come in, Mike revels in spending time with his dad again, and takes his encouragement to try new things -- to go out for the football team, and ask out the beautiful Isma. But who's been keeping the letters all these years? And how did Dad actually die? As the answers to these mysteries are revealed, Mike and his family find a way to heal and move forward at last.
If You're Reading ThisFeaturedHot
Reedy’s prose is simple and unhurried, exuding an almost upper middle grade feel that may act well as a crossover from MG to YA.
What I liked:
The premise itself is both fascinating and timely. As a parent who is regularly concerned with recording things I’d like my kids to know in case they grow up without me, this struck a poignant and relevant chord. And the loss of a military parent is a subject this reader doesn’t often see meaningfully tackled in YA lit.
On a related note, the military life aspects were represented in a thorough and rounded way—the good, the bad, and the day-to-day tedious. There was a clear effort to humanize soldiers and offer up conversation points about the why’s of the war in Afghanistan. It made for a strong symmetry when Mike’s father used his letters to send him on “missions” in the hopes of giving him a better hold on adulthood.
I also liked that Mike’s love interest was a first generation Iranian-American girl. It presented inherent “different worlds” conflict, and a lot of valid opportunity for cultural and religious comparison.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
The female side-characters felt disappointingly one-dimensional. Mike’s dysfunctional absentee mother and self-absorbed sister came off as flat and overwhelmingly unlikeable—as did Isma, the love interest—though they all featured somewhat prominently. Isma’s disdain for the sports activity Mike loves (and seeming inability to reconcile his intelligence with her prejudices regarding football players) is palpable to the point of obnoxious. And I say this as someone who cares not one iota for football.
While Isma acknowledges having an argumentative nature, her flippantly judgmental tendencies became increasingly tedious—to the point where the lack of chemistry between her and Mike made the entire idea of a relationship difficult to root for.
The dark-moment conflict seemed overly contrived. The solution is glaringly simple: Mike needs to grow a spine and use the compelling information leverage he has collected to confront his mother and force her to talk about the things she is intent on avoiding. I would have loved to see the psychological aspect better fleshed out and justified—rather than neatly wrapping up after unnecessary delays.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of telling but not a lot of showing. Physical descriptions were sparse, and the emotional depth didn’t quite allow for the connectivity this reader prefers. The story frequently suffered from a lack of visceral reactions and emotional intensity conveyance. As a result, readers are given little insight into how Mike actually feels about anything.
This book will likely hold stronger appeal to male readers, military kids, and those interested in some of the inner-workings of high school football.
The best part of this book is the framing of personal growth within the arenas of football and romance. This makes it a book that works for both older middle school students as well as high school. Mike's struggle with dealing with his father's death is done very realistically; I thought it was a particularly good touch to have the younger sister claim that she didn't really even remember her father. The hardships that Mike had-- riding his bike, not having a computer, having to work and worry about leaks in the roof of the house-- were not overdone and added a lot of depth to his character. The details about the war in Afghanistan were good as well, especially the local feeling about Isma and her family.