Monday, January 18, 2010

After the Fall: Freefall by Ariela Anhalt

"Hey, Luke, you remember that time freshman year? When you and I played that trick on Mr. Mayer, with the toupee. And we put it up the flagpole, do you remember?"

Okay, nostalgia. I guess now's as good a time as any. "I remember the three weeks of detention you got," Luke said. Luke, who had followed all the rules in junior high, had been impressed by Hayden's daring and had considered himself exceedingly lucky to have been included in the plot.

"You remember," said Hayden, "Mayer only caught me, but I didn't tell him you helped. I had your back."

Oh, shit. He's guilt-tripping me. Luke had to say something. "Look, Hayden, the thing is, I'm not exactly sure.... It's just...." The words refused to come out.

"I mean, Russell's dead. I mean, you pushed him."

For four years Luke has followed his popular prep school roommate Hayden's lead, sharing his classes, pranks, and place on the fencing team, enjoying the instant entrance into Hayden's wide circle of friends. But when a smug newcomer, Russell Conrad, takes Hayden's girlfriend and nearly bests him at his sport, Hayden is knocked off his game and responds to Russell's blatant challenges in what seems to Luke an immature and manipulative way.

And then, when teammate Tristan is injured in a car crash caused by Hayden's drunken driving and Russell is moved into his slot on the competitive sabre team, Hayden unexpectedly volunteers to accompany him on the traditional rite of initiation for the team, a midnight jump from a low cliff into the lake. Luke reluctantly goes along against his better judgment, questioning his roommate's motivation and warning Russell that he should pick another teammate to witness the jump.

Then, when Russell hesitates at the edge of the lake, the two rivals quarrel and Hayden's hasty shove and Russell's stumble take him over the cliff to his death on the rocks below. Luke realizes that his testimony will change his friend's life forever, and he must decide whether Russell's death was merely the result of an impulsive accident or a premeditated murder.

Ariela Anhalt's forthcoming first novel, Freefall (Harcourt, 2010) takes on the familiar issue of conflict between responsibility to friendship and to the truth, as did John Knowles in his classic novel, A Separate Peace. But Anhalt also broadens her theme as Luke comes to see that responsibility for Russell's death goes beyond Hayden's momentary act in the same way as did John Green in his recent powerful novel, Looking for Alaska (see my 2008 review here.)

These are difficult issues for any novelist to navigate, and although there is occasional awkwardness in her exposition, Anhalt, a young college writer herself, does an admirable job in exploring this theme in a setting for young adult readers.

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