The unusual title caught my eye (of course), and I saw a lot of good buzz on Twitter when this book came out last year. Then, leading up to the release date for the paperback edition, Rebecca from The Book Lady’s Blog offered up several copies of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, signed by Michele Young-Stone herself. In a turn of events nearly as shocking as if I’d been struck by lightning myself, I actually won a copy!
I started reading the book not long after the April Read-a-Thon, and finished it in about a week, on April 19. I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to write this review, even moreso because I won it in a giveaway, and not only did Michele Young-Stone autograph it, but she also included a handwritten card and a couple of Handbook bookmarks — I collect bookmarks! — and then she mailed the package to me herself! What kind of ungrateful bum am I, that I can’t write a prompt review??
But here’s the thing: when I finished reading the book, I had one overwhelming thought:
THIS BOOK IS AWESOMESAUCE!!!!!!!
And four words aren’t enough for a review, even if one of them is a compound made-up word expressing very high praise. So the days became weeks, and I finally determined some days ago that this holiday weekend has enough “unscheduled” time that I had to write this review and get it posted.
The novel has two central characters, Becca Burke and Buckley Pitank. Their separate stories are told in alternating chapters, interspersed with quotes and short excerpts from a book called The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, which is supposedly an actual “handbook,” not to be confused with the novel in your hands. Becca’s story begins in 1977, when she is eight years old. She is struck by lightning outside her family’s home in North Carolina. Buckley’s begins in 1967, when he too is eight years old, living with his mother and grandmother in a small Arkansas town. Given the novel’s title, I expected lightning to appear early in Buckley’s story, as it had in Becca’s, but lightning is hard to predict, and arrives in Buckley’s adventures in its own time.
I loved Young-Stone’s characterizations: she includes the kind of telling details and small bits of dialogue that give you a good sense of the characters without tons of exposition. After Becca is struck by lightning, she goes into the house, stunned, and tells her father, “‘Dad, I got struck by lightning.'” Her father answers, without looking at her, “‘If you got struck by lightning, you’d be dead.'” So right away, I’m ready to really dislike Becca’s dad. (And he’s not so smart, because as we learn from the “Handbook” within the Handbook, 90 percent of people who are struck by lightning survive.) When Becca is cleaned off and changed, and her father finally gets off the phone, she tells him she’s ready to go out for ice cream, as they’d planned. But plans change: something has come up, and he’ll have to take her another time. Yes, we learn several things about Mr. Burke, and form an opinion of him, within these three pages.
Buckley adores his mother, Abigail, and never knew his father. He’s frequently bullied by other boys at school, and life in his grandmother’s house isn’t rosy. But he’s kind and sensitive:
Buckley wanted a lot of things, but at the top of his list was for his mother to be happy. It seemed to him that she was always sad. She was a good mom — never a mean word crossed her lips — but like Buckley, she seldom smiled. She was fat, and it was hard for Buckley when they went places to hear people snicker and know she heard it too (p. 11).
A few warnings: there’s some teen sex, infidelity, rough language, and a suicide. This isn’t a young adult novel, but a novel that happens to feature kids who grow into young adulthood. Certain scenes and events could be offensive to some readers. But if you don’t mind these elements — which I felt were believable and well done, and not gratuitous — then there are many wonderful moments to be had with this book.
This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read. I loved getting to know Becca and Buckley, as well as many of the supporting characters. I wished the book were longer so that I could spend more time with them! A sequel probably wouldn’t be a good idea, but I was glad that Young-Stone included a few pages at the end of the book about what happened to a lot of the characters after the main story ended. (In particular, I was thrilled to see that one character I despised “died from a sudden and painful heart attack” — that’s what you get, jerk!) The characters are quirky and interesting, and there’s a lot of genuine love and friendship between them.
Last weekend, an outbreak of storms here in Kansas gave us a fright. We were at the baseball fields, waiting out a “lightning delay” in our van. As the storm strengthened and the lightning became more frequent, my husband and I wondered at the people who were still outside, a few of them running around and apparently unworried about the storm. (This was before the hail started slamming and the funnel cloud developed.) I remembered a critical rule from the Handbook:
TREAT THE APPARENTLY DEAD FIRST
Most lightning strike fatalities are caused by cardiac arrest. Begin CPR immediately!!! (p. 233)
It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s moving and entertaining, and darn it, this book is even educational! You’ll never look at lightning the same way again.