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Personal Effects

By Katherine Keller on November 14, 2015 3:34 PM | Permalink

E.M. Kokie

Candlewick Press, 2012. 341 pages

Contemporary/Realistic Fiction
High School: 9-12
Juvenile Fiction: JuvFic Kokie

The past few years have been a struggle for Matt Foster, but his senior year has really done him no favors.  His brother TJ died about 8 months ago in Iraq, and their bully of a father has not only more or less ignored that fact, but he also wants to plan the rest of Matt's life out, regardless of Matt's feelings on the matter.  Matt's grades have also taken a serious slump as a result of those two things.  Matt lands in serious trouble at school when he gets into a fist-fight with another student over the war in Iraq.  Matt's at home, suspended, when the Army delivers TJ's personal effects and Matt fears that his father will simply throw the boxes away, so Matt carefully opens them and via the letters he finds, discovers that TJ had an ongoing romantic relationship and possible child that he never mentioned during his annual trips home.  When Matt discovers an unsent letter from TJ to "C" he makes it his mission to deliver it.  Desperate to find out what his brother was hiding, Matt borrows his best friend's car and drives several states away to deliver the letter.  What he discovers when he meets "C" changes everything he thought he knew about TJ ... and himself.

First-time author E.M. Kokie does a fantastic job of making Matt's fear, frustration, grief, and rage palpable things.  Personal Effects does a wonderful job of drawing readers into Matt's world.  His mother left the family when he was young and died a few years later, and his father more or less forbade mourning her; both acts left huge scars on Matt's psyche.  His father is an abusive martinet with a hair-trigger temper who mostly ignores Matt except to lash out at him.  Matt's lifeline is his best friend, Shawn.  She's been there for him when he had nobody else, and Matt loves her, but he's afraid to ask her to go out with him because he knows his father won't approve.  He's angry and alienated, and all too often, the adults in his life have let him down.

Personal Effects is a solid book for anybody who's dealing with the stresses of traumatic grief, a fractured family, a life changing secret, or an abusive parent/guardian.  While on the one hand, Matt's journey to deliver the letter is unauthorized (and dangerous), it's an act of agency. Readers see Matt's first steps during his discovery that there's a wider, better world beyond the tensions of his father's house and high school, and that there are better ways to be a "real" man than what his father has attempted to beat into him.

Bibliotherapy Topics:  Grief-Loss, LGBTQ, Relationships with Family Members - Character struggles with family relationships


Katherine Keller - CML Evening & Weekend Supervisor