E.M. Kokie's debut novel packs a wallop.
Matt Foster is a 17-year old junior in high school. And, like many kids who are trying to figure out how to grow up and what, exactly, that means, he's got issues. It's clear from the first chapter that he's got a problem dealing with anger. (And boy, does he have a lot of anger to go around.) There are kids at school constantly baiting him with their anti-military talk. He's struggling with feelings for his friend Shauna, whom he'd like to be something more. He can't help but compare himself to his older brother T.J., who enlisted in the Army. And he's left alone to deal with his father, who has turned out to be a bully. A hard-hitting bully with an alcohol problem.
What you don't learn in the first couple of chapters, though it's given away on the flap copy, is that T.J. is dead. He was killed in Iraq, his injuries so bad that a viewing was out of the question.
Speaking of questions, Matt has a lot of them. Questions about himself and his future, about dealing with his father, about dealing with Shauna. And questions about T.J., especially after Matt gets a look at some of the stuff inside T.J.'s foot lockers. Questions that cause Matt to stand up to his dad, and to undertake a quest, of sorts, to find out the answers. He finds out a lot about himself even as he learns the truth about his brother's past.
A phenomenal read, this book rings true on many levels - what it is like to work through loss and grief, what it's like when you learn things about people you thought you already knew - things that challenge your certainty.
Matt's voice throughout the book is authentic and heartbreakingly real (and, I should point out, somewhat profane, but I found that to be entirely in keeping with the character). It will stay with you long after you've put the book down.
My thanks to the good people at Candlewick for the review copy. This book will be available on September 11th, 2012.