Book Review: We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss
Luke and Toby have always had each other’s backs. But then one choice—or maybe it is a series of choices—sets them down an irrevocable path. We’ll Fly Away weaves together Luke and Toby’s senior year of high school with letters Luke writes to Toby later—from death row.
This thought-provoking novel is an exploration of friendship, regret, and redemption, for fans of Jason Reynolds and Marieke Nijkamp.
Best friends since childhood, Luke and Toby have dreamed of one thing: getting out of their dead-end town. Soon they finally will, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, never looking back. If they don’t drift apart first. If Toby’s abusive dad, or Luke’s unreliable mom, or anything else their complicated lives throw at them doesn’t get in the way.
In a format that alternates between Luke’s letters to Toby from death row and the events of their senior year, Bryan Bliss expertly unfolds the circumstances that led to Luke’s incarceration. Tense and emotional, this hard-hitting novel explores family abuse, sex, love, and friendship, and how far people will go to protect those they love. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Chris Crutcher, and NPR’s Serial podcast.
I loved NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES and MEET ME HERE, the two previous novels from Bryan Bliss, so I figured I’d enjoy this. Though, really, enjoy is the wrong word to use for reading about impoverished, neglected, abused teens, one of whom is on death row. My point is, I knew I’d like the book. But I wasn’t prepared to be totally blown away and just gutted by this story. I’m a reading machine—as soon as I finish something, I pick up something new right away, hardly pausing for a breath in between. After finishing WE’LL FLY AWAY, I didn’t read anything else for a few days, just wanting the story and the characters to stick with me a while longer. This powerful look at loyalty, protection, friendship, and choices will shatter you. Be ready.
The story toggles between the letters that Luke is writing to Toby from death row and the time prior to his incarceration. We don’t know why Luke is on death row, other than he did something that he admitted to and doesn’t regret. We only learn at the very end how he landed there. Though I suspected what was going to happen, what would land him there, it was still absolutely devastating when the reveal of what happened came. But that all happens near the end. For the bulk of the book, we see Luke and Toby struggling through their day-to-day lives. Luke lives with his mom and twin younger brothers in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s never enough to eat and Luke does most of the caring for his brothers. When his mom eventually disappears for a few days, it hardly matters, because she wasn’t doing a whole lot to help out while there. Toby lives with his violent, drunk, abusive father. Toby is used to seeking safety and space to recover with Luke. What little Luke has, he’s happy to share with Toby. He has always been Toby’s defender and protector. The two have hopes of leaving their small North Carolina town after graduation. Luke has a wrestling scholarship waiting for him in Iowa and Toby figures he’ll tag along. They haven’t exactly worked out details, but having some idea of life after this place helps them both cope with their realities. Things begin to unravel when Toby gets involved with Lily, a young woman he meets at the bar his dad frequents. Their meeting sets in motion terrible events that almost feel inevitable. As I read, as I watched events unfold, I kept thinking, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” even though I knew something terrible had to happen to get Luke on death row. It all feels so hopeless.
In Luke’s letters from death row, we see weird glimpses of hope that we could never see in the main narrative. I say “weird” because the kid is on death row. His letters are full of pain and anger, but also resiliency, and he works through so much in his letters to Toby. His letters give us a real insight into his mind during this time. It is, I would guess, virtually impossible for almost all of us to really imagine what it would be like to be on death row. To be waiting. To watch people you have come to know put to death. I think it can be easy for people to look at people in prison, on death row, and forget their humanity. It can be easy to write people off, to expect a punishment, to not see them as humans, to not understand what led them there, to not think about redemption or the worth of a life or what the death penalty really means. Bliss makes you think about all those things. He makes the reader understand that people are not just defined by one thing, but have entire lives and stories that led them to the act or acts that landed them in prison. He asks readers to see their complex lives and care about them. The standout characters, including the nun who routinely visits Luke in prison, are deeply affecting and beg readers to really pay attention to their lives and their choices. Though devastatingly sad, this is also a beautiful look at friendship between two boys—something we don’t always see much of in YA. This emotional, powerful, and unflinching look at friendship, loyalty, and the justice system is an absolute must for all collections. Not an easy read, but an important one.
Review copy courtesy of the author
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/08/2018
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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