The Leaving/Tara Altebrando: reflections by my student, Emma Connolly

Thursday, March 24, 2016

When I talk about my students at the University of Pennsylvania—when I speak of their commitment to our work and to our community, the quality of their search and the depth of their answers, their sentences on the page—I am reflecting on what I love best about the school that once educated and now employs me. I am looking past the rumors and gossip and seeing straight into the heart of young goodness.

Because that goodness resolutely lives.

This semester I have again been blessed by the company of young people and their great talent. A few of my students have brought to class not just an interest in poetry or memoir or fiction (or song writing, architecture, economics, rock climbing, medicine, you name it), but a specific interest in young adult literature—an interest that has been heightened by my uber-cool Penn colleague (and YA writer), Melissa Jensen. I've extended an invitation to any in the class to read from the library of new books that make their way to me—and to offer, here, their thoughts.

In this case, Emma Connolly—a young woman who practically defined memoir in her expectations essay, a young woman now looking ahead to a no-doubt stellar career (at least to start) as a middle grade teacher—took home my copy of Tara Altebrando's new and thrilling book, The Leaving (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). I'd blurbed the book for Tara. I wanted Emma's thoughts. Here, in Emma's words, is what The Leaving is all about.

You see what I mean about talent? Intelligence? Can you imagine Emma as the teacher she will be?

This is the Penn I love.

(And I love Tara, too.)

Who are you without your memories?
For the characters of Tara Altebrando’s engrossing, twisting, mysterious, “The Leaving,” this is not a hypothetical question. When five teenagers are dropped off in an abandoned playground eleven years after they went missing, they are celebrated and intensely questioned. Where were they? Who took them? And how can they be telling the truth that they don’t remember any of it?  
As Scarlett and Lucas, two victims of the event known as “The Leaving,” and Avery, the left-behind sister of the only victim who has not returned, try to solve their own history, Altebrando confronts questions of identity, family, and memory. When Scarlett returns home to a mother who has attributed her disappearance to alien activity, she can’t shake the feeling that they are the ones who are from different planets. What if you don’t fit in where you’re supposed to? Lucas is disturbed by the discovery of skills that he must have learned during his absence. Can you be afraid of your past self? Meanwhile, Avery watches their return unfold as she continues to deal with the devastation that her brother’s disappearance has had on her family. Would she be better off like the victims of the “The Leaving,” able to essentially skip over a difficult childhood?
The characters discover unfinished leads from passed-away relatives and potential clues from past selves. They chase after jerkily recovered blips of memory that Altebrando visually represents by scattering words all over the page and interrupting the narrative with blocks of remembered images. With each revelation, we are drawn deeper into the search for answers before being thwarted yet again. Each time the story approaches acceptance of the fact that one might simply be better off not remembering, though, Altebrando reminds us, “Forgetting meant not knowing, meant ignorance, meant maybe making the same mistakes again and again.” So we keep searching, unable to leave this book until the very last page.


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