Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

I finished Julie Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE on the plane to the Texas Library Association Convention this week, and  I have two things to say about this book up front.

1. I loved it.

2. But the ending killed me.

Here’s why…on both counts.

I’ve always had a fascination with natural disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes – so I’ve read a fair number of Hurricane Katrina books. This was the best of them all, and when I think about why, it comes down to two things – setting and characters.

I’m a place person. I love some of the places I’ve lived and visited with a loyalty and passion usually reserved for family. Cut me open, and you’ll find the woods behind the house where I grew up and the lake in my backyard now etched on my heart. So when a story breathes that kind of life into the place its characters inhabit, I’m pretty much smitten. UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE does just that for the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I understand how much Armani loves that old creaky porch swing that needs painting, how the smell of that run-down donut shop means home to her.

But this is a story about Hurricane Katrina. So we all know what happens to home. Those perfect details come crashing down in the sounds and smells that seep into the later pages and make the reality of this story truly heartbreaking.

The main character, Armani, is just flawed enough to be perfect, if that makes sense. She makes the kinds of mistakes that we all make when we’re ten – wanting things that feel selfish, taking family members for granted, tossing impatient words at a little brother or sister. But most of us, at that age, aren’t left in charge of younger siblings for days on end, while the world falls apart around us. The strength and spirit of this book are palpable and gorgeous and so, so true.

Very vague spoiler ahead that is related to the ending – Skip the next paragraph if you want it to be a total surprise.

The ending of this book – without giving away its secrets – is not happy. And oh, I wanted it to be, even though I know the real story of Katrina and understand how it couldn’t be. I wanted that happy ending for Armani, for all she’d been through. I am a happy ending person, and I don’t let go of that easily. I struggle with darkness. I can’t always watch the evening news and be okay. Unanswerable questions vex me, in real life and fiction alike.

Major spoiler ahead for a different book: If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books, skip the next paragraph.

Confession: I spent the last half of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince waiting for Dumbledore to come back, truly believing it could happen, and waiting for the page turn that revealed he wasn’t gone. Not really. When I finished the book and didn’t get that, I cried all over again. Then I thought about why I couldn’t have what I wanted. And cried some more.

UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is like that, too. If I were still teaching, this is one of those books I’d be putting in kids’ hands along with a pack of Kleenex. I know some of them would come back to me angry about that ending. But we’d talk about it, about the way an ending can be hopeful and sad, all at once, the way an author might choose honesty over neatly tied loose ends. So in a way, I loved the ending, too.

This is a book to read and talk about and share. (Available now from Chronicle Books.)

I support independent bookstores. If UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is on your to-read list, please consider asking for it at your local indie.

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