Storyscapes – Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why

This is a powerful novel! It is a cautionary tale that should be required reading for teachers, parents, middle school and high school students. I finished the book several days ago; it still haunts me, and I’m pretty sure I’ll find flashes of it coming back for many months. It is Asher’s first published novel, and while the intended audience is young adult, adult readers will be deeply moved by the story and perhaps changed forever in their relationship with youth.

Clay Jensen is the protagonist. He is a high school student, who isn’t one of the in-crowd; he’s shy, intelligent, a listener and observer. One day a package is waiting for him when he arrives home from school, and in it are tapes that give thirteen reasons why his friend Hannah committed suicide. Hannah made the tapes, and she has sent them to persons who impacted her life, explaining her reasons for her suicide.

This is not an easy book. The constant shifting between Hannah’s recorded words, which are printed in italics, and the present is a bit disconcerting, but it also serves to slow the reader up and requires the reader to concentrate.

Hannah’s message is not an easy one to hear. It’s those little things that happened, those words tossed off casually, the seeming indifference to her presence on one day, and the self-absorption that made even friends oblivious to her pain. Of course, none of this excuses Hannah’s choice, but as I said, this is a cautionary tale told by the victim with commentary by Clay, who cared, but whose caring wasn’t enough. The pain is intense, both Hannah’s and Clay’s, as he listens. The message is clear – everyone is impacted by everyone they encounter. Words are real and cannot be erased. “Get over it,” “put it behind you,” “we’ll talk tomorrow,” are phrases that can have a dreadful impact and should be used carefully, if at all.

Interestingly, there are very few adults in the novel. Hannah’s parents are barely mentioned. Clay’s Mom is a background figure. One teacher/counselor is on the tapes, and his conversation with Hannah left me with goose bumps. It’s so easy as an adult to respond from an adult viewpoint and totally miss the context youth are coming from.

That’s the message of this book: listen, listen, listen – don’t be too quick with a response. Empathy is the key and nothing is trivial. Come to think of it, that’s good advice no matter whom you are conversing with. Asher’s novel deserves a wide audience. My daughter Sharon read a review written by one of the owners of Butterfly Books in De Pere. She called me and ordered the novel. The reviewer was anxious to spread the word, fearing this book would not get the coverage it deserves. Read this book; pass it on to friends, relatives, and the youth you know. Talk about the book and its story. This is reality and Jay Asher has captured this very ‘silent’ topic and made it a subject to discuss.

Marjorie Grutzmacher’s many roles include daughter, student, wife, mother, grandmother, editor, journalist, teacher, volunteer, bookseller, and reader. She is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.