Book Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

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Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

This book talk is based on an uncorrected advance copy.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: School: failure. Romance: failure. Family: failure. Suicide: failure. There’s only one thing left to try: living.

When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psychiatric ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But there she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experiences with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

MY TWO CENTS: Another fifteen minutes and the pills would’ve done their work, extinguishing all the bright, unrealized promise of 16-year-old Vicky Cruz’s life. Luckily, someone finds her in time. When she wakes up in the psychiatric unit of Lakeview Hospital, in Austin, Texas, her stomach has been pumped, and the first voice she hears belongs to Dr. Desai, a therapist whose guidance and fierce advocacy serve to pull Vicky away from the brink.

At Lakeview, Dr. Desai oversees the treatment of teens hospitalized with serious mental-health issues. Vicky becomes intimately acquainted with three fellow patients, who play integral roles in her healing journey and offer compelling stories of their own:

E.M. came to Lakeview after one of his violent outbursts resulted in court-mandated treatment.

Mona wrestles with bipolar disorder, which was recently compounded by trauma at home. Child Protective Services removed her little sister from the custody of their mom and stepdad.

Gabriel is a young mystic who initially withholds the exact nature of his mental illness from the others in the group. In Vicky’s eyes, he’s a tender soul who moves in and out of functionality.

Lakeview is the primary setting for much of the novel, but some scenes unfold during off-site excursions, including a stay at Dr. Desai’s working ranch, where the patients perform minor farm chores, and go on a wild-river adventure that nearly leads to tragedy but ultimately opens new avenues for transformation. And there are more wild rides as two of the characters plunge into distressing setbacks. Despite her own shaky condition, Vicky responds to others with empathy, leading her to find greater definition in her own life’s purpose.

Vicky’s road to recovery is far from smooth. Shortly after surviving “the deed,” as she calls her suicide attempt, she’s hard pressed to pinpoint what’s so unbearable about her life. But she’s certain she’ll try to escape it again. Strong clues lie in the hollowness of her family relationships. Her mother died of cancer six years before, and less than one year later, her father remarried. Throughout her mother’s illness and even after her passing, Vicky’s father and her older sister, Becca, detached themselves from the trauma. By contrast, Vicky was the sensitive and attentive child who felt her mother’s absence keenly. Afterwards, it was Juanita, the family housekeeper, who served as Vicky’s truest human connection. Unfortunately, Juanita’s arthritis is too disabling for her to continue working and she plans to return to her native Mexico.

Once Vicky leaves the chilly environment of home and enters the warmer climate of the treatment unit, she begins to entertain the idea that life may be worth living. After consulting with an outside therapist, Vicky’s father and stepmother try to convince her to return home and resume normal activities, including school—the general idea being to jump back on the horse after a fall. Vicky’s instinct tells her this won’t work. For one thing, “our house is not a good place to figure things out,” she realizes. Bit by bit, through flashbacks and in conversations in Dr. Desai’s office and with her new friends, we see that Vicky’s family may be well off, but it isn’t well. For example, whether born obtuse or blinded by unresolved grief, Mr. Cruz uses words as bludgeons, and for Vicky, these words and the attitudes behind them strip her of the sense that she is lovable.

Francisco Stork brilliantly depicts the intangibles of interior life, an ability that he ably demonstrated in his 2009 YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World. In The Memory of Light, Stork summons these powers to communicate the nature of depression. Here’s how Vicky tries to explain its mysterious operations to herself: “I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain. They wear flashlight hats of different colors and push clanging carts full of words on steel rails from one corner of my mind to another.”

Vicky experiences small, but important epiphanies during her hospital stay. In a particularly shining scene, Dr. Desai shares approaches to unlocking the vicious circle of obsessive thoughts. One of the nuggets from this conversation is a fable from Dr. Desai’s native India that illuminates the self-defeating nature of holding on to such thoughts.

All of the teen characters and many of the adults in this novel are Latin@s, representing a full range of personalities, social and economic classes, and occupations. The Cruz family belongs to the wealthy sector of Austin. Vicky, who attends an exclusive private school, is markedly aware of her privileged status—and of the fact that it doesn’t shield her from mental illness. Her exposure to the less-privileged lives of her new friends alerts her to her father’s snobbish attitude toward working-class Latin@s. She sees the hypocrisy, too. His own grandfather arrived in the United States from Mexico without a penny.

The Memory of Light is a compelling view of teens in crisis. It points the way toward life beyond depression, yet steers clear of romanticizing serious mental illness. Although it’s primarily Vicky Cruz’s story of dealing with suicidal depression and the agony of living in a family broken by loss and dysfunction, the intertwining narratives of the other young characters charge the novel with extra vitality and shed light on the many faces of mental illness.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Don’t miss Cindy L. Rodriguez’s timely reflections on how depression is viewed in the Latino community. Her article includes a list of YA novels featuring Latin@ characters wrestling with mental illness.

On his website, Francisco Stork features two blog posts related to the topic of depression and the writing of The Memory of Light. See them here and here.

In this article, a school psychologist offers tips for teachers on classroom strategies to help depressed students.

francisco_storkABOUT THE AUTHOR: Francisco X. Stork is a Mexican-born author of six novels for young people. Among these is the multiple award-winner Marcelo in the Real World. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he spent much of his law career working in the field of affordable housing. Learn more about Francisco and his books at his official author site.

 

 

 

IMG_1291Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

You're Lying graphicWhen I was 23 years old, I left Connecticut for Boston for what should have been an amazing experience. I had been recently hired to be a researcher for the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigative team, a dream come true for a young journalist. Over the next two years, however, depression slowly ruined me, although many people close to me never knew. I wrote about it for the Courant years later, when my mind was clear enough to make sense of it. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

“It was a rainy February night in 1997 when it became apparent that the depression was no longer a temporary emotion, but a disease that had invaded every part of my life. I had gotten into my car after work and cried all the way home. I can’t remember why. But I remember feeling like I was choking, like every nerve in my body was numb, like someone was squeezing my heart and everything good inside of me had been twisted around. I remember feeling hopeless.

“I knew then that this thing eating away at me would not just go away. For a long time, I was convinced it would. I believed that the admirable traits I inherited from those before me, like frankness and humor, would overpower this flaw.

“But days and months had blurred into more than a year. Fatigue had seeped into my bones and smiling became an effort — a false statement. I was tired all day and couldn’t sleep at night. I called into work sick with a flu I didn’t have. I pried myself off the sheets to make it in other days. My memory was deteriorating. I could listen to someone talk at length and not absorb a single word. I have no detailed recollection of certain events.

“Still, I thought the depression was situational. I was having a rough time at work, feeling beat-up emotionally and unappreciated. With my career being such a significant part of my identity, I felt shaken and unsure of my talents and abilities. Still, something inside of me was fighting back. I thought I could pull myself out of it.

“That February night, it was my mom who convinced me that this was bigger. That it was something that didn’t just belong to me — that I had inherited it. That it belonged to her and my grandmother before her. This was out of my control. ‘You are definitely depressed,’ she said. ‘Promise me you will see someone.’

“Six days later, I sat in a psychiatrist’s office, unsure of what to do exactly. Isn’t this a luxury for wealthy people? Or a necessity for people with real problems, like battered women? It was hard to justify needing this, being an otherwise perfectly healthy and successful 25-year-old. Yet, when I opened my mouth, a load of hurt poured out and the hour flew by.”

WhenReasonBreaks_CompTen years later, I was planning and drafting what would become When Reason Breaks, my debut novel about depression, attempted suicide, and the life and work of Emily Dickinson that releases February 10. While writing, I knew some readers would wonder why either of the two main characters–Emily Delgado and Elizabeth Davis–would want to kill herself. Nothing tragic happened to either of them. To some readers, none of their problems will be seen as good enough reasons to attempt suicide. They’ll want a big reveal moment: “Oh, she was (fill in the blank with a horrible experience). No wonder she’s depressed and suicidal. That’s a legitimate reason.”

When I was depressed, I didn’t think I had a right to be because, like my characters, nothing tragic had happened to me. I wanted to have a significant event, something I could point to and say, “Ah-ha, that’s the reason. If I address this one, obvious, horrible thing that happened to me, then I’ll be okay.” But I didn’t have that thing. Many depressed people don’t. And with the absence of something obviously wrong in my life, I pushed through the days for far too long, thinking what some people might think about my characters: my problems weren’t significant enough.

This kind of thinking can lead to tragedy because the depression goes untreated, which I’ve discovered happens often in the Latin@ community.

National health organizations report that Latin@s are at higher risk for depression than other minorities. Women experience major depression more often than men, and of students in grades 9-12, significantly more Latinas attempted suicide than their non-Latina peers. Yet, most Latin@s with mental health problems go untreated. A lack of access to affordable services and the stigma attached to mental illnesses are cited as barriers to treatment. Untreated depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death for all people aged 15-24.

These statistics got me thinking about depression in young adult fiction, and I realized that in the books I’ve read, white characters are more likely to land on a psychiatrist’s couch. Most of the Latin@ characters in novels I’ve read fight through mild to severe depression without medical help, or they are somehow detained, in a treatment facility or group home, and the therapy is required. In When Reason Breaks, one of the main characters visits a doctor and gets medication, but doesn’t take it. She finally accepts real help after her suicide attempt.

As the Latin@ population continues to grow, I hope barriers are removed so that more Latin@s seek treatment for mental illnesses. I also hope more YA writers tackle the variety of mental illnesses and show characters of color getting help at some point instead of suffering through their pain. Maybe more teens will see themselves in these books and understand that their problems are significant enough, that they don’t need a “real reason” to feel the way they do, because in reality, depression is the real reason.

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-4673

Suggested by book lovers online, here are some titles with Latin@ characters who struggle with different levels of depression.

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