Like Nothing Amazing Ever Happened
Like Nothing Amazing Ever Happened will be published on April 14th, 2020 by Penguin Random House as middle grade fiction. I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
My review contains spoilers about the plot. It also contains references and discussion of the content warnings listed below (death of a parent and speculation of suicide, childhood grief), so please do not read on if you are sensitive to those topics.
Content Warning: Death of a parent and speculation of suicide, childhood grief
A poignant story of a boy picking up the pieces of his life after the unexpected death of his father, and the loyalty, concern, and friendship he finds in his small-town community.
Justin doesn’t know anything these days. Like how to walk down the halls without getting stared at. Or what to say to Jenni. Or how Phuc is already a physics genius in seventh grade. Or why Benny H. wanders around Wicapi talking to old ghosts. He doesn’t know why his mom suddenly loves church or if his older brother, Murphy, will ever play baseball again. Or if the North Stars have a shot at the playoffs. Justin doesn’t know how people can act like everything’s fine when it’s so obviously not. And most of all, he doesn’t know what really happened the night his dad died on the train tracks. And that sucks.
But life goes on. And as it does, Justin discovers that some things are just unknowable. He learns that time and space and memory are grander and weirder than he ever thought, and that small moments can hold big things, if you’re paying attention. Just like his math teacher said, even when you think you have all the information, there will be more. There is always more.
Set during the Gulf War era, Like Nothing Amazing Ever Happened is a story about learning to go on after loss, told with a warmth that could thaw the coldest Minnesota lake.
To read a book that is equally heartbreaking as it is heartwarming and hopeful is to cycle through a flurry of emotions – often over the course of just one page. In Like Nothing Amazing Ever Happened, Emily Blejwas tells a story that centers around a seventh grade boy whose father recently died tragically, but like in any affecting piece of literature, this story is about so much more.
From the very beginning, we know Justin (our protagonist), his brother Murphy, and their mom are still very much grieving over the loss of their father and husband. The book begins not before the tragedy, not directly after, but a few months later. This feels important, because while the family makes adjustments throughout the novel, their sadness and grief are not completely in that state of rawness that occurs directly after a loss. In a slightly more healed state, we get to know the characters for who they are, not just in the aftermath of a shared tragedy, but in general. We see how their everyday changed, and how it will continue to change, but the hopefulness and love that exudes from every page give the impression that everything will be as okay as it can be.
The hopefulness and love do not stop with the family. The supporting characters in this book, and their actions, are just as unforgettable. Justin’s best friend Phuc is always there to help with math homework and life questions (per the latter: in the way that a seventh grade best friend can help with such questions), and the quick moments with Justin’s bus driver, teachers, and librarian complete the wholesome feel of this story; it makes me tear up just thinking about them all again.
In a story like this, full of life lessons, questions, and subtly dark or ironic humor, it can be easy for conversations and encounters to sound preachy and pushy. But just as she balances heartbreak with heartwarming sentiment, Emily Blejwas incorporates an appropriate amount of both quippy scenes and nearly corny conversations. The tone of the book is serious because of the tragedy and how it has effected the children and their mother – similarly and differently. But it is also lighthearted in nature because of the author’s ability to ease that seriousness with steps in the [metaphorical] forward direction, and different methods of support from the other people in the family’s life.
And that ability is not a small task. The setting of the book and the history of the boys’ father contribute to the heaviness of the story. As a Vietnam veteran living with regret, the only thing that didn’t seem to change after he returned from war was his devotion to his family. It is clear in the way the boys remember him, and the way their mother talks about him, but also in a book of poetry he wrote after his return. This book is given to Justin by his mother, in hopes that it helps him with some of his questions – big and small. One of the bigger questions, which nobody has the answer for, is whether Justin’s father’s death was accidental, or a choice he made for himself. As one of the larger themes of the book tells us, things are not always so simple, cannot always be explained in a cut and dry fashion. What is important is to seek out and gain perspective; view a problem – whether it’s a history lesson, math problem, or more personal experience – from as many angles as possible. Doing so may lead (is likely to lead) to more questions, but in the company of the right person or people, those questions and the resulting conversations can lead to empathy, more discussion, and feeling more comfortable in the face of uncertainty.
For plot readers, this is not an action packed tale, because it is ultimately about every day life. But that is ultimately what makes the emotion and different perspectives so touching and all-encompassing. Justin’s days in school, researching the Dakota people who lived in their town and whose lives and land were violated to make the town what it is today, and then winning the district’s National History Project competition with his presentation on the history of the Dakota, are what give the book its beginning, middle, and end. But it’s what Justin learns during that process, through all his questions (about all things), and the people by his side, that give this story its life.
Just as with any book and story, this one may feel too hopeful, or not realistic, or dull, depending on your life experiences and fictional preferences (again, the plot does not have the most attention here, although it is still so fulfilling). But I think the underlying magic of this story is that if you allow yourself to be consumed by it, the characters, and the setting, you will reach the last page with slightly more optimism, joy, and wonder for all of life’s questions than you had at the beginning.