A few years ago a friend’s son died by suicide. When that boy was little, he used to play with my son in a park we moms favored because it had lots of trees, providing lots of shade. Here’s what my friend wrote in her Christmas letter:
We miss [name redacted] every day. Each year, we walk in the Out of Darkness Walk and support AFSP to raise awareness and assist in the education to end suicide. We decorate his memorial elm tree on his birthday, Christmas Eve, and during the summer when the pool is open. It is getting very tall.”
There is something about having that tree, watching it grow tall, that has helped this friend and her family. Trees become a healing force in Dear Evan Hansen as well, bookending the story.
Evan Hansen is into trees. That’s why there’s one on the cover. The summer before the story opens, Evan worked as an apprentice park ranger. That’s where, right before school started, he fell out of a forty-foot-tall oak tree and broke his arm. The first day of school, Evan’s mom gives him a Sharpie so his friends can sign his cast.
The problem is, Evan doesn’t really have friends. But one person does sign his cast — a guy named Connor.
Here’s how each of them describe the cast-signing:
Connor: “My name. That was the last thing I wrote. On another kid’s cast. Not quite a good-bye note. But hey, I made my little mark. On a broken limb. Seems about right. Poetic if you think about it.” And to Evan he says, “Now we can both pretend we have friends.”
Evan: “There, on the side of my cast that faces the world, stretching the entire length and reaching up to ridiculous heights, are six of the biggest capital letters I’ve ever seen: CONNOR.”
It’s important to be absolutely clear that despite the giant signature, Evan and Connor were never friends. Because after Connor’s death by suicide, Evan will claim that they were close friends, even best friends. He will create a set of fake emails. Evan’s deception propels him to popularity he never dreamed possible, and he hurts the people who care about him most.
This is a story about a boy who is misunderstood. He’s a loner. He’s selfish and insensitive. His family doesn’t understand. He’s desperate. He’s smart and creative. He’s weird.
Wait, are we talking about Connor or Evan? That’s the point.
When I was growing up there was a TV phenomenon called the after-school special. It was always about a hot topic, and it always wrapped up nice and neat. There is more realism in your average Marvel superhero movie than in your average after-school special. Dear Evan Hansen is not an after-school special. (It is a Tony award-winning musical, and this novel is the companion piece to the soundtrack.)
In an after-school special, Connor would be a troubled young man with a good heart. He’s troubled, all right, but his good heart is hard to find. When we meet him, he bullies Evan. His sister calls him a psychopath. He’s broken his parents’ hearts, who have done everything to help him.
Similarly, in an after-school special, Evan would be the plucky hero — shy and awkward, but with a message of redemption. Evan is shy and awkward, but he also has serious depression and anxiety. He does bring a message of redemption, but it’s predicated on a lie.
In the real world, Evan and Connor were never friends. But in the unreal way that stories work, where death is not an uncrossable barrier, a friendship between them becomes real. Evan is there for Connor, and Connor is there for Evan.
The story does not wrap up nice and neat. It’s not a happy ending — it can’t be, not without Connor. But despite the fact that Evan did a very bad thing, the world is a little better for him having done it.
As the story concludes, Evan considers the old adage, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” in light of everything that’s happened.
Within the logic of that saying, the apple falls every single time. Not falling isn’t an option. So, if the apple has to fall, the most important question in my mind is what happens to it upon hitting the ground? Does it touch down with barely a scratch? Or does it smash on impact? Two vastly different fates. When you think about it, who cares about its proximity to the tree or what type of tree spawned it? What really makes all the difference, then, is how we land.”
We all fall down — teenagers, parents, sisters, friends. Dear Evan Hansen is about the landing. And about whether, when we hit bottom, we ever make a sound.
This is National Suicide Prevention Week. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
1. When a topic is difficult, I often turn to stories. It can be easier to discuss Connor and Evan than real people. Do you have any recommendations of other stories about suicide?
2. Do you have stories about other difficult topics that have led to good discussion or helped you understand someone?
3. Have you seen or listened to Dear Evan Hansen? What’s your take on how it addresses social media?
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, October 11. We will read The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, by John Erickson. Giddyup!
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro