How to Make Friends with the Dark
It's the brightest day of summer and it's dark outside. It's dark in your house, dark in your room, and dark in your heart. You feel like the darkness is going to split you apart.
That's how it feels for Tiger. It's always been Tiger and her mother against the world. Then, on a day like any other, Tiger's mother dies. And now it's Tiger, alone.
Here is how you learn to make friends with the dark.
What I Liked:
As ever with stories on this order, it’s great to see the inclusion of helplines and websites at the back of the book. The author goes the extra mile in also offering insight into her intentions and motivations with this book—some part of which is evidently inspired by her own mother.
The choppy, tangential style of Tiger’s narrative did an effective job of conveying both her trauma-induced mental ailments and the narrow, introspective perceptions that defined her even before the inciting incident. And the simple, serviceable prose gave the book more of an upper Middle Grade feel (though, some of the content is clearly better suited for a YA audience.) I also appreciated the unique organization of the telling. (i.e. instead of numbered or even titled chapters, each division is marked by the number of days and/or hours, and sometimes minutes, since the inciting incident.)
Thaddeus was both a compelling and well-rounded character. His motivations were as clear as his physical and mental traumas. His above-and-beyond compassion for Tiger, and his selfless determination to better himself so he could care for his vulnerable sibling, were possibly the healthiest examples of coping in this entire story. I looked forward to his every appearance and wish we’d gotten to see more of him.
For those directly dealing with bereavement, this book has a lot to offer by way of managing expectations. Watch particularly for sections beginning with statements on the order of: “This is what happens when…” or “This is how it feels…” As they will go on to address both the emotional and pragmatic aspects of the death of a loved one when YOU are their only known family. Aspects such as funeral arrangements and costs, death certificates, unpaid bills, cremation and procurement of remains, etc.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
Once readers get past the first few chapters and initial aftermath of the mother’s death, the pacing slows notably, and the plot seems to meander. It also becomes difficult to make any kind of connection with most of the characters.
Tiger, for instance, never felt very fleshed out. Prior to her mother’s death, it seems as though she was just sort of existing in an undeveloped state. No hobbies, goals, or plans for her future. No hopes outside of wanting to go to a dance and kiss a boy. She has a very loyal, caretaking best friend… who somehow manages to come across as more well-rounded and sympathetic than our bereft main character. But I was never clear on why or how Tiger managed to inspire such relational dedication from this one lone girl.
I suspect my lack of connectivity also had something to do with the sheer number of issues this book attempted to roll into one story. Sudden parental death, parental incarceration, foster care, grief, bullying, neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, domestic abuse, poverty, abandonment, alcoholism, drug use, drunk driving, self-harm, secret half-siblings, depression, suicide, suicidal ideation, anorexia, abortion, juvenile detention… There’s even some commentary on the racial divide (which, unfortunately feels a bit pontificating and forced into the scene in which it comes up.) Yes, a number of these can certainly go hand-in-hand. But here, there were so many as to sometimes require the suspension of disbelief. And in attempting to encompass so many of these issues, most were only shallowly touched on.
This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach was vaguely reminiscent of The Perks of Being a Wallflower , minus the more endearing moments and bits of humor that would allow readers an emotional break.
Content Note: Initially the stigma against the foster care system felt heavily enforced—to the point of seeming to encourage becoming a runaway (with no mention of the high human trafficking risk, particularly to females) as a preferred alternative to being in “the system.” But if readers hang in there, you’ll see one fairly positive example of a foster parent, and then a group home situation, is eventually presented—largely mollifying the effect.
While it’s absolutely true that there are broken aspects of the foster care system (and major gaps in transitional care once children turn 18, which the book does enlighteningly mention), there are also many very dedicated foster parents and child advocates out there who deserve credit and recognition.
It’s valiant to even attempt to tackle such weighty and important subject matter. And no one expects an issues book to be all rainbows and unicorns. But for many who experience the sudden loss of a loved one and the situational depression brought on by grief, its not nearly such a one-note experience of bottomless despair. (As is repeatedly suggested by ALL of the kids in Grief Group.) There are often surprising moments of humor—which can vary from the sweet, to the absurd, to the morbid. There are moments of guilt, followed hard on the heels of forgetfulness and/or sparks of fleeting happiness or contentment. There are complex stages to grief, which people work through in their own individual ways and on their own unique timetables.
My concern here, ultimately, is that more fragile/vulnerable young readers going through something somewhat similar may come away from this story with precious little hope. There’s some attempt at ending on an up (or perhaps optimistically neutral) note, but the resolution feels rushed and contrived, with little explanation for one characters’ freefall turnaround—which only crops up in the last chapter or two. I don’t feel I can recommend it for those coping with a fresh loss.