Book review: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson with illustrations by Christine Larsen
17-year-old Andrew Brawley lives in a forgotten part of the Roanoke General Hospital. By “forgotten,” I don’t mean that it’s an area that doesn’t get many visitors or feels lonely—it’s literally a forgotten wing of the enormous building, abandoned in the middle of renovations. And let’s unpack that sentence even further: “lives” is accurate, because it is his only home and he never leaves there, but “hides out” or “squats” might be better words. He sleeps on a pile of stained sheets using a laundry bag as his pillow. He swipes items from the hospital staff to use as he needs to. He works in the cafeteria (getting paid cash under the table) and spends most of his time hanging out around the ER or in the pediatric department. He doesn’t need to be in a hospital in the sense that he’s not sick or there for treatment. But he needs to be there because it’s the last place he saw his family alive.
Andrew (often called Drew) is killing time chattering with his favorite ER nurses when Rusty is rushed in. Rusty, who appears to be Drew’s age, is in agony. His tortured howls should drive Drew away, but they keep him there, curious, feeling as though he should bear witness. Rusty has suffered severe and extensive burns, something about an accident maybe at a Fourth of July party. The details come out quickly, both in the media and from what Drew learns by keeping his ears open around the ER: Rusty, who had long been bullied, was set on fire at the party.
Drew takes to sneaking into Rusty’s room and talking to him or reading to him. He feels some connection with him, though he’s not sure why. Both boys are gay, and when one of the nurses asks Drew if he knows Rusty, Drew points out, “We don’t all know each other.” But he gets to know him. He tells Rusty things he hasn’t told anyone else, like what happened the night his family died. As Rusty begins to slowly recover, the conversations become two-way, rather than Drew just talking to a boy he isn’t even sure can hear him. Their affection for one another grows quickly, though Drew still isn’t sure what to make of how he feels about Rusty.
Throughout the story, Drew is on the run from Death, who also goes by the name Miss Michelle. Michelle is a social worker at the hospital and Drew lives in fear that she will one day figure out not only that he’s living in the hospital, but that he’s in fact a missing boy. He feels he somehow escaped Death when he lost his family and it’s just a matter of time before she catches him. He also worries that Death will come for Rusty, too.
Drew is drowning in grief. We know he’s seen tragedy, but the full extent of that tragedy is revealed slowly, and packs a real emotional punch when it’s finally all out there. Drew talks to Rusty about his debilitating guilt and how his family’s death is his fault. The grief permeates every page of the story. It is dark, dark, dark, and gets darker with every reveal. I ached for Drew as I watched his pain and guilt, cried when Rusty recounted the years of torment he suffered at the hands of his peers, and was shattered when he finally told Drew about what really happened the night he was lit on fire.
The other characters here are well-developed and mostly all have dark or sad aspects to them. Drew’s only real friends beyond the ER nurses are Lexi and Trevor, two teens in the cancer ward who are in grim shape. Drew also befriends Father Mike, the hospital’s priest who, to Drew’s surprise, is into comic books, has a biting sense of humor, and doesn’t shy away from conversations that ask the hard questions. Drew’s other friend is his boss Arnold, who runs the cafeteria. Drew can’t figure out what a guy with a master’s in literature is doing running a hospital cafeteria, or why Arnold has a tendency to pull back into himself and have unexplainable dark moments. In Drew’s small world, everyone has seen too much death and suffering.
This book includes a graphic novel that Drew is working on interspersed throughout, telling the story of Patient F. Here, Drew works out some of his anger, pain, guilt, and grief. If the overall narrative is dark, then the graphic novel is whatever is one step beyond dark. It’s disturbing, creepy, and haunting, and gives us a real look at exactly what tortured thoughts run around Drew’s brain.
The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley gutted me. The author puts all of Drew’s pain on the page and never lets you look away. Even the lighter moments are tinged with pain, death, suffering, guilt, and loss. Drew’s story is hard enough to imagine, but it was Rusty’s story that tore at me. When he tells Drew of his years of being bullied by his classmates, he says, “People always guessed I was gay… Not like I’m flaming or anything—or that it’d be bad if I were. It was just the worst-kept secret at my school. I never dated girls, Nina was always my bestie, and I sucked at sports.” Drew laughs and says, “Sucking as sports doesn’t make you gay.” “No,” replies Rusty, “but it makes you a target.” He explains that he was on a hit list. There were points for assaulting him. By the time he got to telling Drew about what happened when he was lit on fire, I had to set the book down. All I could think was, please don’t ever let that be my kid—the one brutalized for being different or the one cruelly bullying his classmates. I wanted to look away, but Hutchinson makes sure you can’t—look closer, his writing urges, as he describes in painful detail the humiliation and hatred.
It’s hard to say the novel has a hopeful ending. That darkness? It outdoes itself near the end. The idea that things have to get worse before they get better is more like things have to get worse before they can get even WORSE. But there is hope, especially if the graphic novel is to be viewed as finishing the story rather than wish fulfillment. Though Drew is suffering on every page of this story, he is also fumbling his way through the darkness to whatever is on the other side of it. All of the characters are. It’s hard to see that or remember that in the middle of so much pain, but hospitals aren’t just a place for ailing—they’re also a place for healing.
The unique setting, multifaceted plot, strong characters, and raw emotion make this story impossible to put down, even when you really want to. I’ll be thinking about Rusty and Drew for a long time to come.
REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 1/20/2015
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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