Book Review: Wreck by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Set on the shores of Lake Superior, Wreck follows high school junior Tobin Oliver as she navigates her father’s diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.
Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.
Full disclosure: Kirstin is my friend and I blurbed this book. For the tl;dr version of this review, here’s my blurb:
Kirstin Cronn-Mills takes readers on a provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.
When Tobin’s father, Steve, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), everything changes. ALS is a progressive, degenerative disease. While some things may slow the progression of the disease, there is no cure. ALS involves paralysis, eventually affecting breathing and swallowing. It’s junior year and Tobin should be hanging out with her few friends, preparing her photography portfolio for scholarships for art school, working at her aunt’s thrift shop down in Canal Park in Duluth, and just going about life as she has come to know it. But the diagnosis throws everything into disarray. Steve’s disease is rapidly changing his body and his brain. Ike, a family friend and former Army medic, moves in to be Steve’s personal care assistant. Tobin’s mom took off years ago, so it’s really always just been Tobin and her dad. They know that before long, Steve will die, leaving Tobin in the care of her aunt until she’s no longer a minor, then on her own.
The question becomes what do you do in the time between getting a devastating and terminal diagnosis and actually dying? For Steve, he continues to socialize, help work on the marathon committee, and writes a book of advice to leave behind for Tobin. For Tobin, she tries to bury her heart deep in Lake Superior, which feels like the only way she can keep going and cope with this horrible situation. To complicate matters further, there’s a box in their house that’s haunting her. Inside that innocuous-looking box is pentobarbital, a barbiturate that Steve intends to take a high dose of to end his life, on his terms, when the time is right. And if he’s physically unable to do so on his own, he’s asked Tobin to be the one to administer the medicine.
For both Tobin and her father, their lives are nothing like what they had imagined them to be like. The grief that comes with accepting this diagnosis and Steve’s eventual death is heart-wrenching. Having lost my own father very suddenly in a car accident, I don’t know if there is a “good” way to have a parent die—unexpectedly, where you have no time to prepare, or slowly, where you have lots of time to anticipate and watch someone ail. I think it’s terrible no matter what the circumstance. For Steve, his personality changes are ROUGH. He vacillates between loving and his usual self to angry, mean, hateful, and uncontrolled. It goes with the territory with ALS, but that doesn’t make it easy for Tobin to experience or easy to read. No matter how hard Tobin tries to protect her heart, she can’t. The grief, the waiting, the unpredictability, the potential to have to help her father die—it’s all too much. Trying to have no feelings about something that causes BIG feelings is impossible. We know where this story is going and how it will end. It is an unrelentingly sad plot, punctuated by brief moments of joy, whimsy, and always by plenty of love.
Undoubtedly, the narrative of death with dignity–that is, the right for terminally ill people to die on their own terms—will create passionate feelings about this book and possibly some controversy. That said, the plot makes it clear why this can be a compassionate act, why someone would choose this option. Steve and Tobin’s story is filled with lots of nuance, empathy, support, and love. This is a moving exploration of mortality, family, and impossibly difficult decisions.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Sky Pony
Publication date: 04/16/2019
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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