Rakmen Cannon's family has suffered a terrible loss: the death of his baby sister. His parents are struggling to stay together as he and his mother attend counseling at a neighborhood center. His mother sits with all the other mothers who have lost a child and Rakmen hangs out in the basement with the other siblings who are supposed to be learning how to cope through some rather lame art therapy. They are good kids and they understand each other better than anyone else can. And then 10-year old Jacey shows up and doesn't know the rules about what you should and should not ask; she's a pushy kid and she pushes Rakmen hard. Whether or not that is a good thing is part of what the reader has to find out.
The Way Back From Broken is, surprisingly, also a bit of an adventure novel, in that way that kids-in-the-wild books can be. Rakmen ends up spending the summer with Jacey and her mother while his parents try to get it together. As Jacey's mother is one step away from losing it herself this ends up being a dubious decision at best on the part of Mr. & Mrs. Cannon. (Adults make a lot of less than brilliant decisions in this book, something that most teenagers are going to likely find extremely enjoyable.)
Things at the idyllic cabin by the lake are not as idyllic as Jacey's mom described, it all goes to hell in a handbasket and Rakmen and Jacey end up having to make a bit of an epic journey (with a canoe - hence the cover illustration) to save the day. All of this provides a lot of time for sorting out feelings, getting to a better emotional place and finding one's inner strength for the two kids. (As many books have taught us, wilderness treks make for killer bonding experiences.)
By then end, Rakmen gets his act together and finds a way to live with his loss which is important. What makes The Way Back From Broken better than most great loss title for teen however is that the getting better is a messy process. Keyser shows how painful it is to lose someone for all of her characters, how they each handle it different ways and that there is no right or wrong way - it's a process that must be navigated on your own. There is nothing romantic or noble about these losses; it's just some tragic death and some grieving people who want to find out how to get past being sad. That might sound like a downer of a book but it's not, it's just realistic.
(It's also about sleeping in a cabin overrun by mice, so don't worry that the laughs are totally absent.)
"Hope is like a road in the country: there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence" reads the quote (from a translation of The Epigrams of Lusin by Lin Yutang), that opens The Way Back From Broken. We could all use a few more books about hope, I think and Keyser gives that to readers here, in all its awkward, complicated beauty.
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