“We Now Return to Regular Life”
Author: Martin Wilson
Publisher: Dial Books
Price: $17.95 (Hardcover)
Martin Wilson, raised in Tuscaloosa, now a literary publicist in New York City, has published his second Young Adult novel. The subject once again is the difficulty, for many teens, of growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or for that matter, anywhere.
In his first novel, “What They Always Tell Us,” a pair of brothers, Alex and James, are moving through their last years at Central High in the late 1980s.
Alex is gay, and just coming to terms with that. James is thoroughly heterosexual and athletic but feels nearly as isolated and lonely.
In his new book, a convincing exploration of teenage consciousness and conscience, the central problem is much less vague.
Sam Walsh and his buddy Josh, eleven-year olds, are riding their bikes down Skyland Boulevard to buy a video game at McFarland Mall. There is a quarrel; Josh heads home, leaving Sam behind. Sam is abducted, thrown into the back of a white truck and taken.
After a few weeks go by, it is presumed by most that Sam is dead.
His mother, however, never gives up hope and doggedly searches locally and on the internet. She’s devastated but determined.
Sam’s friend, Josh, and Sam’s older sister, Beth, have also been shaken by Sam’s abduction and the weird notoriety they experience as “the missing boy’s sister” or “the missing boy’s best friend,” but also by their guilt.
Beth was minding Sam, was not supposed to let him go off. And Josh knew more about the white truck and the man who was driving it than he told police. If they had both come clean immediately, Sam might have been rescued that day.
The stress on everyone is crushing.
Then, out of the blue, after three years, Sam is found in Anniston and returned, physically unharmed.
Sam is back. We realize the ironic power of the title.
His mother is relieved and ecstatic. Presumably, now they all can “return to regular life.”
But of course it is not simple at all. She and everyone else must come to terms with Sam’s captivity. Wilson keeps the physical and sexual violence off stage, as YA books need to do, but the other characters and readers want to know: What happened? Torture? Sexual abuse?
Although Sam was not permitted to go to school while in Anniston, it is learned he had considerable freedom and could have run away from his captor almost any day. Why didn’t he? Was he “brainwashed”? Sam is understandably subdued, “different.”’ How emotionally damaged is he?
Sam is in therapy, and probably, over time, will mostly heal. His mother cautions everyone to let Sam tell his story when and as he needs to. Finally, what we do learn is not told by Sam, who never narrates, but from Josh and Beth in alternating, first-person chapters that are about their lives as well as Sam’s.
Beth, a high school senior, has feelings for Donal, a charming Irish boy, and is torn some between the cheerleader crowd and her soccer buddies.
Josh, now 14, finds himself rejecting the advances of a pretty girl named Madison—there are four Madisons in his class, Wilson tells us—and coming to realize he likes boys, not girls.
To these more or less regular stresses of the teen years is added their intensified guilt, now that Sam is back.
Unless these three all open up to one another, clear the air, their guilt and secrets may cripple their lives and slow their progress towards becoming the well-adjusted adults they should be. As Wilson has now shown us twice, even under “normal” circumstances, growing up is hard to do.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.