writers retreat & the sky is everywhere

I work with several critique groups: an online group of YA novelists who banded together following a mediabistro class; a mixed bag of  non-fiction folks, YA, Sci-Fi and adult novelists and short story writers who meet IRL once a month; and a sustaining group of Kidlit/YA authors and illustrators who meet every Saturday at a Starbuck’s to write. We email during the week and don’t always have time to make the meeting, but the ethic of inclusiveness and feedback that we encountered in Peggy King Anderson’s evening class, where we all met, informs the communal conversation. A few of us scheduled a retreat for this weekend on Lopez Island and the fates obliged with changeable but lovely weather.

The place we’re staying is a decidedly modern cabin on the beach with a big table for our laptops and meals, a fireplace and a great deck. Only two of us came up the first night. We ate and did our weekly online chat (oh yes, there is some overlap in the critique groups) and wrote. At ten p.m. I decided to read, and cracked open the sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I finished it at 2:15, awash in tears and meditating on the themes of love, loss and identity that this beautiful YA novel explores.

17-year-old Lennie Walker lives in Clover, California with her sister Bailey, her Uncle Big and her grandmother, Gram. Lennie is a gifted clarinetist who as the book opens has just returned to school after Bailey’s sudden death from heart arrhythmia. The two girls have always been close, sharing a bedroom and a private ritual of creating an imaginary life for the mother who left them with Gram sixteen years before.

Lennie’s grief is expressed in poems she writes on anything and everything, and scatters around her home, underneath the redwood trees, by the river where she and Bailey swam, throughout the town where she lives and the school where she is finishing up her Junior year. These poems are reproduced graphically and introduce or sum up sections of the story. The poems themselves stand on their own two feet and read together are a lovely, heartbreaking view into Lennie’s struggle and sorrow.

She finds solace with Toby, Bailey’s fiance, a bond of loss that takes a confusing, sexual turn but which she can’t resist. Balancing this is a developing relationship with Joe Fontaine, recently relocated to Clover from Paris. Impossibly handsome, charming and a brilliant musician, he goes right to Lennie’s heart by way of music. As Lennie takes her journey through fresh loss she re-examines her relationship to music and her family and struggles with a future that doesn’t include Bailey but that she must somehow find a way to navigate.

Nelson does a lovely job of creating a small town that feels northern California small with enough quirkiness to support belief in Lennie’s colorful family. Uncle Big, five times married and the town arborist (his assignations take place in the basket of the cherry picker from which he prunes trees), and Gram, a painter who creates only portraits of women in shades of green and who owns a seemingly endless supply of wildly colorful floral outfits, set the familial tone for the sisters’ creative personalities. Gram’s garden of aphrodisiacal flowers and Uncle Big’s serial monogamy are threads of love as expressed in nature that carry through the book and echo in Lenny and Joe’s developing relationship. The embracing world of her family and the glimpses of love and belonging she sees with Joe are threatened when she and Toby are discovered, and Lennie must ask for forgiveness and understanding from those she cares for the most.

Lennie’s best friend Sarah serves as the chorus and conscience of the book, verbalizing the questions Lennie asks herself about her behavior and proving herself a true friend despite the distance that Lennie creates as she works through her loss. All of this should be too much description and emotion for one story but once the almost magic realism of the story is established Nelson does such a masterful job of balancing loss and passion and the ache of the past with the promise of the future that the reader accepts the story on its own terms. Ultimately the lesson that Lennie embraces by the book’s end is that she will never get over the loss of her beloved sister, her mourning will be with her throughout her life, but she can choose to live with joy and integrity and become her own best self as a memorial to Bailey.

I admired the writing and the story of the sky is everywhere but also that I have been left with much to ponder and reflect on from my own life. This one’s a keeper.

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About Tina Hoggatt

I am an artist and writer and work for 4Culture, King County's cultural arts organization.
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