Review by Joanna Jacobs
For anyone who was in elementary school during the early- to mid-1980s (meaning people now in their early- to mid-40s) the specter of child abduction loomed terrifyingly large. When I was six years old, another six year old, Adam Walsh, disappeared from a Florida shopping mall; a few weeks later, his head—and only his head—was found. That crime, and the later TV movie made about Adam’s murder and his parents’ agony, seared into the minds of American children and parents alike a horrifying certainty that child abductors lurked around every corner. This resulted in a period of extremely heightened national anxiety: my cohort of kids were drilled on how to avoid “stranger danger” and fingerprinted so our bodies would be easier to identify, and every 25¢ cafeteria milk carton bore a stark warning that I was highly likely to be kidnapped by a stranger at any time (even though the truth is that children then and now face far greater dangers from their own family’s members and friends). I was certainly affected by this ambient anxiety, and my guess is that Martin Wilson, author of We Now Return to Regular Life, was as well.
We Now Return to Regular Life is Wilson’s second Young Adult novel, after his beautifully observed 2010 book, What They Always Tell Us. The story starts with the titular return—Sam Walsh, who had disappeared from nearby his suburban Tuscaloosa neighborhood three years earlier, has come home. He was eleven when he was abducted, but he’s returned a graver, quieter, and potentially deeply troubled fourteen-year-old.
The details of what happened to Sam during those three years are unfurled slowly over the course of the book. Wilson refers to several real-life crimes in his plot: details of what Sam suffered at the hands of his kidnapper mirror the true stories of young kidnapping victims Steven Stayner and Elizabeth Smart, and Sam’s last name evokes the aforementioned generational ur-terror that I and all the children I knew experienced from the disappearance of Adam Walsh.
Wilson takes a smart and unexpected angle on the story, choosing to tell Sam’s story exclusively
from the points of view of two people close to him—his older sister, Beth, and his onetime childhood friend, Josh. The reader learns almost nothing about Sam’s ordeal that he doesn’t tell one or both of them—and consequently we experience along with them some of their uncertainty, confusion, and pain for and about Sam. We also learn a great deal about the varied effects that Sam’s disappearance—and his return—had on his family and friends.
As in his previous YA novel, Wilson here demonstrates both a strong memory of what it felt like
to be a teenager and an exceptional talent for translating those memories into prose. This book does a good job of communicating some fairly complex and subtle truths about adolescence—for example that teens, even well-meaning ones, are usually unable to handle it when their friends are going through truly life-changing problems (as opposed to run-of- the-mill high school drama)—and adults are usually not much better at it. Indeed, the adults around the traumatized Sam consistently fail to give him the help he needs (or even, mostly, to acknowledge that he might need any help at all), and they also fail to arm Josh and Beth to help him effectively—even though large amounts of that burden fall on those two kids by default. I hope that any real-life adults who found themselves in a situation remotely similar to Sam’s or Josh’s parents or teachers would encourage therapy much more often and persuasively than the adults in these teens’ lives do. The other side of this coin, though, is that because so much of this book is told from the kids’ points of view, it does fail to address some of the more serious implications of Sam’s residual traumas (including some of the potential sexual aftereffects). That the teens are unequipped to handle those psychologically fraught implications is completely realistic, but I nonetheless found myself wishing that Wilson as an author had not let some of these issues and their ramifications drop in quite the way he does.
Wilson also ably captures the way that teens can be surprisingly compassionate and mature
when alone with each other, but can revert to cruelty and callousness in larger groups. He demonstrates the ways that teens can be unpredictably conservative (small-c) and intolerant of any difference or change, no matter how small or seemingly everyday. He gets a lot of things just right about what it feels like to be a teenager.
This is a thoughtful and engrossing novel that sharply and skillfully renders the alienation and confusion of adolescence and that touches on serious and profound themes.
A note for local readers: This novel is set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the author also grew up. But although the story and characters laid out here are certainly recognizable and believable in most ways, contemporary Tuscaloosa teens may find the high school landscape and logistics unrecognizable in at least one way: in the book, high schoolers from all over the city—and from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—attend only one public high school, Central High. Although the book is clearly set in the “present” instead of the late 1980s and early 1990s when Wilson was a student at Central (there are references to cell phones and the obsolescence of landlines, as well as to Obama having been president), in this one way, Wilson seems to have chosen to depict Tuscaloosa’s public high school situation as it existed during his high school years instead of as it is now (and as it has been since the early 2000s, when the Tuscaloosa public schools were reconfigured in such a way to make Central an essentially segregated school). In this way, Wilson’s novel feels as though it takes place in a sort of utopian alternative Tuscaloosa. There are a few other anachronistic elements like this (McFarland Mall is depicted as a still-viable retail option, which, again, it has not been since around the time of Wilson’s own adolescence) but the high school configuration is the one that Tuscaloosa teens are most likely to