Dec 30, 2010

Review - Sweet, Hereafter by Angela Johnson

Sweet, Hereafter by Angela Johnson
Published January 5th 2010 by Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

From the Publisher: 
High school student Shoogy Maple moves out of her home and into the home of Curtis, a soldier who just returned from Iraq. Shoogy and Curtis live a quiet, simple life in the woods. After reading a letter from the Army Reserve, Shoogy knows Curtis has a tough decision to make that will affect everyone.

Shoogy Maple lives in a cabin in the woods with no TV, no radio, and no computer. It is a quiet life that she has chosen after leaving her family home at 17. Shoogy and Curtis settle in to a routine of school, work and hushed meals. Life is going at a slow and steady pace until Shoogy reads a letter, addressed to Curtis from the Army Reserve. Shoogy learns Curtis has been ordered to return to active duty. Shoogy begins to understand why Curtis has been suffering from nightmares, yelling out in the middle of the night, and waking up drenched with sweat. Curtis must make a decision to return to war or possibly go to jail. Whatever his decision, Shoogy’s life will change forever.

Coretta Scott King Award winner Angela Johnson gives us the final installment of the Heaven trilogy. Told from Shoogy’s point of view (a supporting character we met in Heaven and The First Part Last), Sweet, Hereafter is a novel as quiet as the characters. There is sparse dialogue and there are no in-depth self reflections. Shoogy is a young African American female whose mother characterized her as “free” and “restless”. Shoogy moves out of her home at a young age, but we do not quite know what finally led her to leave, and we do not quite know why she turned to Curtis. We are only told, “I left home on a sunny day.” Curtis was a former neighbor, and the two had a few brief encounters in the last year or so. This adds to his mysterious quality. The reader is given no information of his background, military or family life, and we are left to assume he is an uncomplicated man haunted by war. When Shoogy mistakenly reads the Army Reserve letter intended for Curtis, they never discuss his choices. The reader is never positive whether Curtis knows that Shoogy read the letter. Although his decision is heartbreaking, it was really hard to connect with Curtis because the reader had no chance to get to know him.

This book is quite different from the others in the trilogy. Heaven and The First Last Part had a defining plotline of family. Young Heaven (Heaven) discovers her parents are not who she thought they were, and Bobby (First Last Part) is a single, teenage dad fumbling his way through fatherhood. Sweet, Hereafter is more subtle and nothing is told outright. Sure Shoogy chooses her family when she turns to Curtis, but we do not know why. Did she get kicked out? Did she leave in the middle of the night? There are no details and the story is very ambiguous. Sweet, Hereafter is more poetic and figurative than the companion novels. For instance, Shoogy refers to Alice and after a few minutes, you realize she is speaking of her truck, and not a person.

Even though the main character is African American, in my opinion, there are only subtle references to African American culture. We are told that Shoogy had a "curly ‘fro", but if the author did not come right out and say it, we might never guess that Shoogy is an African American girl. The cover art is the only evidence. Her boyfriend Curtis is only described as having “the darkest eyes”. In addition, there is no talk of religion, spirituality, celebrations, traditions or any other aspects that could be cultural markers. The language can be that of any teenager living in America today. Lingo used was something that any young person would say, and it wasn't on the heavy side. Sweet, Hereafter is a novel that blends in perfectly with other young adult fiction. Recommend for ages 13+.

3 stars