Ellie wasn't at her school the day of the tornado outbreak. She left after a big fight with her boyfriend, Noah, and was in the lighthouse when the storm started. From there she saw the massive tornadoes destroy most of her town and she saw the explosion when a gas truck fell from the sky onto her school, killing Noah and her three best friends. After the storm the entire town is grieving and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. Ellie keeps telling her parents that she's "fine" but she begins to question that when she starts seeing her next door neighbor - one of the kids killed at school - playing basketball in his yard. When Ellie talks to him and records him telling his story, she finds that she can help free the souls of the dead who are now appearing to many others in town.
I finished this book yesterday and have been mulling it over, trying to make a decision about what I think the main theme is, a way to sum up my feelings about it, and how to put into words all the things it is. What I have decided is that The Gone Away Place is too many things for me to put one word on it because the scope of emotions and thoughts in the book is awesome. However, the closest I can come to summing up the book for me is the word "grief". People think they know what grief means but that is too small a word and too easily dismissed to encompass all the subtleties Barzak infuses his story. Both my parents have died so I know some things about grieving but I couldn't have listed all the components of grief if asked. As I read the book and have continued to reflect on it, I realize that there are so many parts that contribute to the aching feeling of grief and they are included in The Gone Away Place. Here are some of the threads wound up in this book:
Several of the ghosts are longing for the future they will not have now. They tell Ellie about their plans - reconnecting with a brother, getting out from a sibling's shadow, beginning college. All of them delayed their own happiness because they knew they would soon be able to begin the lives of which they dreamed but now that opportunity is gone and I could feel the loss in reading their stories. When someone we love dies, all of our future dreams with that person die with them. It's not just the person themselves we are missing, it's the experiences we were going to have with them as well.
Regret is such a huge part of grieving. There will always be something you wish you had done differently with a loved one after they've died. For Ellie, her last conversation with Noah is haunting her and, since she has seen several ghosts but not him, she appears to have real evidence that he is holding that against her. Tied in with that is the idea that death puts things into perspective and
makes us re-evaluate our priorities. Ellie now sees that her problem with Noah was not a big deal in the big picture.
Preserving someone's story is important. Once someone is gone, their story dies with them. Ellie finds that capturing those stories is the key to helping a ghost move on. Even her best friends tell her parts of their lives Ellie didn't know about. Remembering someone's story - things they did and what they thought - is their legacy so capture those memories while you can.
And on the theme of personal stories... Ellie's counselor talks about the disruption in Ellie's story and how she needs to find a way to continue it, possibly in a new direction. That was such a great visual for how your life begins to mend itself after a death that I stopped to let it sink in and then, to see if I could analyze what changes I'd made in the direction of my life. How often does a book cause me to stop reading and just let its message settle into me? Powerful!
Finally, there is hope. Ellie is given such a gift in that she has the chance to talk to her friends again before they move on. I haven't had that kind of encounter with a dead loved one, but I can still identify with the feeling of hope those meetings in the book gave me. Because as bad as grieving is, there are also so many moments when you see something or hear a piece of music or remember something about that person that makes you smile and makes your heart fill with love and happiness that you had that person in your life in the first place. Ellie talking with her friends brought those warm feelings to me while reading the book and it felt completely at home as a part of the grief.
The Gone Away Place is a deep story that presents itself almost as an adventure or horror novel - tornadoes! angry ghosts! Take time to read it and really experience the full range of what it has to offer.
Also - holy crap, is that cover terrifyingly beautiful!