Every town has a “right side” and a “wrong side” of the tracks, but in Whitmore, the tracks aren’t proverbial—they’re literal, and Emmett Callaghan knows exactly which side he lives on. He grew up poor and when the army sends his older brother Jamie back home in a body bag, it’s like the duct tape that held Emmett and his parents together is ripped away. Mrs. Callaghan walks out on them and Mr. Callaghan succumbs to early on-set dementia. At 16, Emmett knows the only chance he has at something like normal is to play it cool until he’s 18—a feat that seems increasingly impossible as Emmett’s new role as caregiver sucks up more and more of his time, patience, and soul.
When Noah Davies and his family move to Whitmore, Emmett is just excited to have something to look forward to. Noah is nothing if not easy on the eyes. That bud of excitement positively blooms when Noah makes a point of befriending Emmett. But podunk ways are ingrained in anyone who knows anything about Whitmore. Emmett comes from the south side, the have-nots and nothings, where the Davies are north side, monied somebodies in every sense. After many false starts, Emmett finally starts to understand that what side of the tracks you live on does not dictate who you are—and that it’s just as true for the north siders as it is for him.
Bit by bit, Noah starts to prove to Emmett that he, too, can have a bit of happiness. With the help of a kindly neighbor, Emmett begins to venture back out into the world of teenage drama—kissing his boyfriend, grabbing a coffee, hanging out. All the while, though, his father’s condition grows increasingly mercurial and down right abusive. When push comes to shove, Emmett is going to have to make a choice, for better or for worse.
This was such an interesting read. I really enjoyed the atypical character choices in a very typical setting. While Emmett and Noah are technically an interracial couple, is their difference in class that clearly sets them apart. The way Lee treats Emmett’s near destituteness is by-and-large excruciatingly and realistically portrayed through Emmett. He has a huge chip on his shoulder about affording things and accepting charity or hand outs (or the perception of such). At the same time, he’s been able to keep things together well enough to still be living in the house he grew up in. This was one point that I thought needed to be addressed more resolutely because he doesn’t have money for basics, yet the power is on at home, the TV works, he’s got a cell phone…where does the money to pay for that come from? (His in absentia mother sends some cash every month and Emmett’s father’s old work buddies float him some money, but that would not be enough to cover everything.)
As far as the dynamic between Emmett and Noah goes…I was sort of on the fence about this. We know Noah’s sort of just blown into town for the short term, so from the get-go, we know this isn’t a relationship that’s going to last. That said, I felt like there wasn’t really a spark between them. Emmett is pretty remote because he’s desperate to hide the fact that he’s basically a minor living alone (again, his mom skipped town, his father’s sinking into dementia, and his brother’s dead). He cuts himself off from everyone and he gives the same treatment to Noah. It wasn’t clear to me WHY Noah tries so hard to befriend and love Emmett, but that’s what happens. Given Emmett’s closed nature, however, it constantly felt like they were sort of always at the first-date stage of a relationship.
The relationship here felt pretty repetitious. Noah pursues Emmett, Emmett makes excuses, Noah accepts whatever Emmett can take, Emmett feels bad about how little he feels he can offer, Noah continues his pursuit. One thing that helps shake up some of the monotony is Mr. Callaghan. I am in no position to vouch for the authentic of the portrayal of dementia, but Lee uses this erratic character well. So while we may see this Noah tries/Emmett denies cycle time and again, waiting for how Mr. Callaghan will (or won’t) react adds interest and builds a sense of hope that somehow things just may work out. The closer I got to the end, the more I wondered how the whole shebang was going to get wrapped up. Like many books I’ve read, the ending felt like something special—albeit in a sort of “making peace with your lot” kind of way in this book. I actually think this might be the kind of book you’d want to read as a freshman in high school because of how Lee leaves things between Emmett and his father (I was sort of blindsided by that ending and happy that the takeaway for me was something more than “the one that got away.”)
This is a book that focuses on the life and times of a kid from the wrong side of the track. It shows his humanity, how he does and does not successfully cope with the injustice of his lot. There is a lot of focus on the connection that grows between teenagers Emmett and Noah, but personally, I found the most meaning and wonder in the Emmett’s method of making peace with his father—perhaps something that he was only able to do for having known and loved Noah.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.