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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Imagine you’re a young teenager brimming with natural curiosity. Now imagine your single mother suffers from an extreme form of agoraphobia. What if she is deathly afraid of the Outside and instills the same fear in her son? Will he play by her rules, or will his curiosity overcome him and he make his way Outside? What will happen if he does go Outside? Will he die? These are some of the questions that make up the plot of If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie.

Will Cardiel is the son of Diane, a former filmmaker who has escaped her fears of the world by moving back to her childhood home in Thunder Bay and locking herself away. At the same time, she virtually imprisons her pre-teen son in the same house, weaving a tale of endless, life-threatening dangers outside the walls.

Will and his mother have gone so far as to name the different rooms of their house after glorious cities from around the world. Imagine eating dinner in Paris, or sleeping in London, all in the same day. It gives them a slight feel for the world, but safely inside their homegrown cocoon.  However, teenage boys are controlled more by curiosity and less by mothers. Wearing a hockey helmet for his own safety, Will ventures out the door only to be greeted by a rock flung by a slingshot.

While this initially threatens to drive Will back into the refuge of his home, he instead confronts the young man who inflicted pain upon him. The teenager, stealing hoses from the shed, apologizes to Will, but remains aloof. The mysterious nature of this other boy increases Will’s desire to learn more about the Outside.

Will begs his mother to allow him to attend the local public school rather than continue being home schooled. Despite her misgivings, she acquiesces. Will befriends a Native boy, Jonah, from whom he learns that the Native population is still considered to be second-class citizenry, or lower. Because of Will’s affiliation with Jonah, he is also looked upon with distrust by those in positions of authority. At the same time, the boy stealing the hoses has disappeared.

There is something mysterious happening in Thunder Bay. It comes down to Will and Jonah to discover the secret as well as find their friend, Marcus.  Marcus, the boy who Will met during his first Outdoor excursion, is also a Native and a child in foster care. It is assumed by others that Marcus simply ran away like he had so many other times. His two friends believe it is something more sinister.

Throughout the novel, we are introduced to Will’s mother, Diane, through short vignettes. With her narrative, we learn a little about her history. Her mother died when she was young, leaving her in the care of a father who worked the grain mills along the waterfront and a twin brother whose struggles with a small town ended up destroying him. In her early adult years, Diane was an accomplished and renowned filmmaker. However, as the years piled on, she drew further into her own protected world.

Diane’s fears for herself and for Will. Now that her son has escaped into the big, bad world, she has a new group of fears to drive her even deeper into her agoraphobia. She feels like she’s losing control over her own life as her son drifts away. She begins to dwell on the memory of her brother, Charlie, as Will demands more freedom. She does not want the same life for Will as Charlie was forced into.

In the end, Jonah and Will discover the secrets hidden in the mills of Thunder Bay. Will discovers, that while the Outside is dangerous, it is full of adventure that he does not want to miss. Additionally, Diane is forced to leave her sanctuary in order to save the life of her son as well as that of his friend. She does not completely overcome her disability, but she is able to move with a bit more freedom.

Michael Christie explores the relationship between a mother and her son as she tries to hold onto his childhood while dealing with her own fears. Teenage boys are naturally curious and itching to fly away from the nest. Christie captures this dichotomy very well. He also enters the mind of a teenage boy with relative ease. Some of the things he describes, I can readily remember from my own teenage years.

The biggest detriment to this novel deals with some minor characters. The gang, lead by a guy named Butler, never really materializes very well and comes off as more of a distraction rather than a valid plot point. Their placement and description in the novel reminds me of a thinly veiled cardboard caricature full of endless cliches.

Aside from that one criticism, If I Fall, If I Die is a book well worth the time it takes to read. Christie’s prose flows easily and is a realistic look at a teenage boy’s sense of adventure. He also captures the spirit of an agoraphobic Diane Cardiel. This author is a very good writer and I cannot wait to read the next book by Michael Christie.

+Craig Bacon’s teenage adventures included building forts and chasing girls. Today he builds blanket forts in the living room with his own girls. You can chase him on Twitter at @hippieboy73.

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