Today, we’re thrilled to have a guest post by Amber J. Keyser, author of The Way Back From Broken (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015). Amber’s debut novel earned a starred review from Booklist, which described it as “an exquisite and enthralling exploration of loss, love, and healing” and concluded that “this vivid, moving exploration of grief and recovery hits all the right notes.” Here’s the publisher’s description of The Way Back from Broken:
Rakmen Cannon’s life is turning out to be one sucker punch after another. His baby sister died in his arms, his parents are on the verge of divorce, and he’s flunking out of high school. The only place he fits in is with the other art therapy kids stuck in the basement of Promise House, otherwise known as support group central. Not that he wants to be there. Talking doesn’t bring back the dead.
When he’s shipped off to the Canadian wilderness with ten-year-old Jacey, another member of the support group, and her mom, his summer goes from bad to worse. He can’t imagine how eight weeks of canoeing and camping could be anything but awful.
Yet despite his expectations, the vast and unforgiving backcountry just might give Rakmen a chance to find the way back from broken . . . if he’s brave enough to grab it.
And now, here’s Amber.
My debut novel, The Way Back From Broken, is about two young people thrown together by shared tragedy who find healing in the Canadian wilderness. When I set about writing it, I knew I wanted to explore the different ways people navigate the difficult terrain of loss. How do we grieve? What helps us heal? Where are the pitfalls that can trap us? I wanted to write about how loss reverberates through families and threatens to tear them apart.
There are two families at the center of The Way Back From Broken—the Cannons and the Tatlases. Their lives intersect at Promise House in a support group for families who have lost children. Loss is their common ground. It links these families across differences of race and religion.
Fifteen-year-old Rakmen Cannon is biracial. His father, Michael, is black, and his mother, Mercedes, is a Catholic from Mexico. Ten-year-old Jacey Tatlas’s family is white. Her mother, Leah, is an agnostic who would rather be hiking than in church and has little use for organized religion of any kind.
The story that I’ve written belongs to Rakmen and Jacey. The Way Back From Broken explores what happens to them, but in this post, I wanted to write about the relationship between their mothers. Although it is touched upon very lightly in the final version of the book, it is still foundational to the story.
When Rakmen and Jacey’s mothers first meet, Mercedes (Rakmen’s mother) has been coming to the support group for nearly ten months after the death of her infant daughter. She is a woman of faith who does not shy away from the hard work of grief. She goes to group and therapy; she also finds comfort in prayer. She embraces Leah, whose loss is much fresher.
Leah has never been a religious person. She is a biology teacher who likes to hike and canoe. For her, comfort and solace are found in nature. But the loss of her stillborn son has shaken her to the core. She feels as if her own body has betrayed her.
As she and Mercedes become friends, Leah sees the comfort that Mercedes finds in her faith and wishes that she were able to access the spiritual sustenance that Mercedes does. Desperate to find a way to make some sense of her loss, Leah decides to return to the cabin where she spent many happy summers as a child.
This decision—and the trust these two women share—sets many things in motion during the course of The Way Back From Broken. One of the powerful things to come from the crucible of their loss is the way their families become connected, which sets much of the rest of the story in motion. Mercedes chooses to send Rakmen along with Leah and Jacey to Canada, where the stories of their families become even more intertwined. The differences that too often hold people apart make all of them stronger, especially their children. And in the end, they forge a new kind of family.
About the author: Amber J. Keyser is an evolutionary biologist-turned-writer, who loves stories about heroes, scientists, and adventurers. She grew up in Oregon backpacking, fishing, and white-water rafting. Now she lives on the dry side of the mountains with her husband, two kids, and dog named Gilda. Every summer she returns to a cabin in Canada that was built by her grandmother, Algonquin Park’s first licensed, female canoe guide. If she had a choice, she would travel everywhere by canoe or on horseback.
Some of Amber’s forthcoming and recent books include The V-Word (Beyond Words, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first time sexual experiences, and Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series Quartz Creek Ranch (Darby Creek, 2017). She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about upcoming appearances can be found on her website at www.amberjkeyser.com.