I never expected my first review for Before We Go Blog to be of a middle grade contemporary novel told in free verse, but here we are!
Although I’ve read some recent middle grade novels and loved them (particularly the work of Waka T. Brown), I’m one of those people who refuses to revisit childhood favourites for fear that as an adult those beloved books won’t live up to my memories of them. I don’t want to ruin young me’s experiences of His Dark Materials, Animorphs, or the work of Zilpha Keatley Snyder. High up on Mount Olympus, these literary gods can remain unblemished by adult cynicism.
The fact that I picked up Alone at all was somewhat of a chance thing. Megan E. Freeman shares a name with an author friend of mine, and I’m fairly certain when I requested it from my library I was under the impression it was her book (it isn’t). It languished on my shelf for months and after a final e-mail from my library asking me to return it, I slipped it into my bag to bring back after work. I’d planned to read a book for class on the way in, but as it happened, I accidentally left my current read on the shelf by the door. With nothing to read I glanced at my library books and, noticing that Alone was in free verse and therefore much shorter than I’d imagined, I thought: well, maaaaaaybe I can finish this.
Finish it I did!
Alone was easy to sink into from the first page. The structure of its free verse format is compulsively readable, so that your gaze all but tumbles from
and you think
just one more page!
there are no more pages. ):
The premise of the book is simple on the surface: a twelve-year-old girl named Maddie plans a secret sleepover with two of her friends at her grandparents’ currently vacant summer home (ye olde “tell one parent you’re staying at the other’s place” trick). But when Maddie’s friends cancel, she decides to spend the night by herself. She awakes to a shock: overnight, an undetermined “imminent threat” to the United States has occurred and her small Colorado town has been evacuated. Her divorced parents have left messages for her, but believing her safe with the other there’s no guarantee they’ll realize she’s been left behind. Unable to get a call through, Maddie races home, but the entire town is deserted, their cellphones abandoned on the roadside. With only her faithful rottweiler George as a companion, Maddie must survive in a town without running water, electricity, or the promise of rescue . . . Alone (hah).
There’s a subtle speculative element to the novel—it’s implied very early that the threat of unspecified catastrophes in the United States has been ongoing for some time, and though Maddie doesn’t know the precise nature of the imminent threat that caused the evacuation, she’s unsurprised by the general spectre of urban collapse. The vagueness of the threat actually lends to the ominous quality of Maddie’s plight—is this some kind of invasion (human or otherwise), an insurrection, an environmental disaster, or something still worse? We wait, as Maddie waits, for the answer to that question, never certain whether survival is even possible, or if it’ll transpire that Maddie is alone not only in her community, but in the world.
For the most part, though, Alone is a survival story, emphasizing Maddie’s grit and determination as she and George adapt to the myriad challenges Freeman throws their way. In many respects Alone is comparable to Gary Paulsen’s now-classic Hatchet (a book I myself read and loved as an eleven or twelve-year-old), and readers hoping to catch a glimmer of the narrative tension, robust character work, and propulsive thrill of Hatchet would indeed be well-served to pick up Alone. That said, the book more keenly invites comparison to Scott O’Dell’s influential 1960 novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is directly referenced by Alone itself, with a quotation from the classic serving as Alone‘s opening. There’s a degree to which the two novels work in parallel, and it’s evident Freeman intended Alone as a piece in conversation with Island. For one thing, Maddie constantly compares her own situation to that of Karana–the heroine of Island–and for another, Maddie’s younger brother was compiling a book report on Island just prior to the evacuation. His finished report—dealing with Karana’s loneliness—becomes a memento for Maddie.
For me as a reader, the direct comparison Freeman draws between the two stories dramatically increased the narrative stakes. Having read Island, I knew of some of the challenges and tragedies its main character faced. Would Maddie, too, be met with similar obstacles? There are enough plot similarities in common that the spectre of Island rather haunts both Alone and the reader, adding to the sense of worry that things could go wrong for Maddie in the same ways they do for Karana. As in Island, Maddie is accidentally left behind when the rest of her community abandoned their once home, and both Maddie and Karana find companionship through a canine friend. Although Island later enjoyed a sequel, my memory of the book included an ambiguous ending in which the prospect of a safe escape was anything but certain, and this fact left me concerned for Maddie (and George) throughout.
Beyond (or perhaps intertwined with) Alone’s focus on themes of interconnectedness and the importance of human companionship, Freeman also uses the framework of the story to comment on the importance of literature, poetry, and particularly libraries. At a time when public access to accurate, free information faces continued attack and challenge, Alone’s thesis that these things not only matter, but are crucial, is both welcome and timely. As Maddie struggles to survive, she’s faced with the obvious fact that the resources she would have previously depended on to teach her new skills (internet access, her parents) are unavailable to her. Under these circumstances, it’s her public library that serves as an essential source of information. Whether being used for its non-fiction (supplying Maddie with everything from fire-building instructions to gardening advice), or fiction (Maddie makes it her goal to read through the entire library), books provide Maddie with both a literal escape from specific and deadly scenarios, and a figurative escape from her loneliness through the fictional worlds she embraces. Most significantly, perhaps, for Freeman and the novel, poetry ultimately provides Maddie a means of self-fulfilment and expression. One of the more subtle uses of poetry in the book is through Maddie’s character growth. As Maddie matures over the course of the story, so too does the richness of Alone’s poetry deepen. The more straightforward (though exciting) style of the opening chapters transforms into something more capacious and fluid as the story progresses, touching more deeply on Maddie’s realizations about what it means to be a human in a dying world.
These later reflections, many of them implicit and subtle rather than outright stated, do a wonderful job of expressing some of the unexpected beauty of Maddie’s realizations. There’s a call throughout the book, it seems, to slow down. Contrasted with the constant pressure many of us are faced with to be constantly available, constantly productive, consistently doing, Maddie’s enforced moments of stillness have something, perhaps, to communicate about the value of pausing.
Alone is a beautiful meditation on the place of the individual in the world, human resourcefulness, but also the importance of community. It’s also just an exceptionally fun and fast-paced read that will have you flipping the pages and clamouring to find out what happens next.
I wholeheartedly recommend this work to children and adults alike.