18 March 2015

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

It's no secret that I love Andrew Smith's books. So of course I got his newest, THE ALEX CROW, as soon as it came out. I waited 24 hours before reading it, though, because I was three-quarters of the way through THE RAVEN BOYS when I picked it up, plus I wanted to save it for the plane (I was flying to Orlando the next day).

Though GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE was my first Andrew Smith book, it actually wasn't my favorite - that prize goes to either PASSENGER or 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, depending on my mood on any given day. I loved GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE but it didn't grab me in the way some of the others did. So much advanced publicity for THE ALEX CROW was comparing it to GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, but to me, it was a superficial comparison at best. THE ALEX CROW borrows the interwoven narratives of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE but uses them in a different way: while GJ started narrow and widened its perspective, THE ALEX CROW did the opposite, casting a wide net and then showing how all the pieces were intertwined.

In the present, Arial, a refugee from a war-torn country (one assumes in the Middle East), is attending a summer camp with his new American brother, Max; in the past, Ariel tells the story of how he came to leave his home country, and we quickly realize he is narrating the story to Max; somewhere far away, The Melting Man, a schizophrenic nutjob who is literally melting from exposure to radiation from the dirty bomb he's hauling in the back of a U-Haul; and in the distant past, told in journal form, is the tale of the steamship Alex Crow, trapped in the Arctic ice.

In GJ, Austin says that all good stories are about everything, and yet I felt that was even truer of THE ALEX CROW: there was so much packed in so effortlessly, and much less self-consciously, too. Ariel was a compelling, heartbreaking narrator, lacking some of the cynicism that Austin possessed but making up for it with honest confusion and befuddlement at the strangeness of his new American life. He's thoughtful and generous to others.

As Ariel's summer progresses and he slowly opens up to Max (plus another friend, Cobie Peterson), he also learns that Camp Merrie-Seymour is more connected to his adopted father's work than he realized (Ariel and Max's father works for Alex Division, which is essentially an morally questionable Mad Science lab). In Ariel's past, we see the cruelty and kindness that got him to the refugee camp where he was eventually adopted. This portion contains some of the most chilling writing Smith has ever given us, and it broke my heart ten times worse than THE KITE RUNNER.

As The Melting Man drives across the country, we see his spiral into madness take him deeper and deeper. And in the voyage of the Alex Crow we see how easily we can set ourselves on the course to self-destruction.

Andrew Smith has never shied away from showing the harsher parts of life, and that's taken to new, bizarre heights with THE ALEX CROW. This books lives precariously balanced between horrific and tender, sometimes at the same time. People do horrible things to the ones they care about. Or do kind things for a total stranger. Sometimes all at once.

America is never presented as magical, which is wise and true: as awful as Ariel's encounters in his home country are, the things he encounters in America turn out to be equally horrific.

And yet.

Life goes on. Andrew Smith has said that he doesn't believe things always do get better - sometimes they get worse. But that doesn't mean life isn't worth living. Ariel is resilient and somehow, amazingly, still hopeful.

I've written before about the best friends Andrew Smith writes for his books - Robby Brees in GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, Conner Kirk in THE MARBURY LENS and PASSENGER, Cade Hernandez in 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, and more. Those books all showed friendships fully formed, the kind of loyalty and fidelity that come with years of friendship.

Ariel starts out alone, friendless, and essentially brotherless, since Max naturally is opposed to getting a new brother at the age of sixteen.

Seeing him and Max grow closer was the best part of the entire book. The first time Max realizes how awful he's been, and is forced into giving Ariel a hug, made me smile. And the moment when Max asks Ariel to tell him his story - all the horrible things that happened - and stays up half the night, unflinchingly listening, made me cry.

Man has the power to destroy himself and the world around him. But we also have the potential to make ourselves better. Sometimes all it takes is a little compassion.

I loved THE ALEX CROW, even more than I expected to. And I can't wait for Andrew Smith's next book (STAND OFF, the sequel to WINGER, releases this September!).