There are books that aren’t meant for the faint-hearted and I try to avoid them. However, I’d heard so much about “Dear Edward” by Ann Napolitano, I knew I had to try it. It’s the story of a boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash that took the lives of his family and all the other passengers. It’s not for everyone’s tastes, but it’s an engrossing novel that’s a brilliant study in suspense, grief and survival. The book shifts from young Edward’s present-day perspective to those of eight other distinct characters on the flight, tracking their experiences from getting onto the plane to the final moments before its fatal crash.
The plot sounds like a newspaper headline: Plane Crashes Mid-Flight. Hundreds Dead. One Boy Miraculously Survives. In actuality, it was news when, in 2010, a commercial airliner from South Africa to London crashed in Libya. A 9-year-old boy survived; all others on board, including his parents and brother, were killed. Napolitano became obsessed, not only by the story, but by social media’s fascination with it, so much so that she ended up spending the next eight years writing this fictionalized version set in the United States.
The story begins at New Jersey’s Newark Airport, as 12-year-old Edward “Eddie” Adler, his older brother, Jordan, and his parents board a sold out Los Angeles-bound flight. A close knit family, they are traveling because of a temporary relocation for the mother’s television writing job (Dad is a stay-at-home who schools the boys). As Eddie and his brother battle over who gets the window seat, their parents stress over how the boys will cope with the move. Among the some 200 people on board are a bitter old tycoon who has cancer and four ex-wives, a wounded discharged soldier, and a young pregnant woman hoping to get married. Several issues are highlighted through these characters and several others: abusive relationships, sexuality struggles and identity crises. The writer’s compassion and love of her characters depicts each of these people whole and complex.
A bad luck mixture of freak weather conditions and pilot error sends the Airbus crashing into the ground somewhere in Colorado. Everyone is killed but Edward; he is the sole survivor, the “Miracle Boy.” If that isn’t chilling enough, in alternating chapters, the novel returns to that flight in its final hours, minutes and seconds allowing readers to get to know some of the doomed passengers. The author’s dual-timeline structure, between Edward and the plane, turns “Dear Edward” into a nail-biting page-turner with just enough mystery to satisfy our rubbernecking urge to see the unfolding of a catastrophe and its aftermath.
Edward awakens in the hospital as the world’s most famous orphan. Shattered and scared, suddenly he must bear an odd blend of trauma and idolization. Having lost his loving parents and a brother he worshipped, he does not feel the least bit lucky. He’s called “The Boy Who Lived,” but he has no magical powers, despite millions of web pages that claim otherwise.
Taken in by his childless aunt and uncle in New Jersey, Edward is miserable and inconsolable. He enters what his therapist calls a “fugue state” in which he “tries to stay away from thoughts and emotions, as if they’re furniture he can skirt past in a room.” He changes his name from Eddie to Edward and, although his childhood has ended unexpectedly, he’s really not an adult. “We need to figure out what you are,” his therapist says, “so we can figure out how to help you.”
The only one who seems to be able to reach him is his next door neighbor, a girl his age named Shay, who “feels like oxygen to him.” She provides the air of clarity that this broken boy needs to rebuild his life. She is the honesty in this book and like Edward, she recognizes that while this is a unique situation, he is not the only person suffering a tragedy.
The relationship between the two teens becomes profound and meaningful, and it’s the stabilizing force in Edward’s new life. “No one can hurt you ever again,” she tells him. “You already lost everything, right?” They work together to discover more about the passengers and the people whom these passengers left behind. With each new connection, normalcy gradually returns – a clicking noise that’s bothered Edward ceases, he stops watching soap operas and goes outside, he starts eating again.
What Edward and Shay discover supplies readers with more knowledge as they turn the page and enter the fated aircraft once more. This choice helps tie the stories together – that of the crash and the sole survivor – and soon, the individual qualities of the eight significant passengers are hinted at in Edward. He strives to do something, to be someone, in honor of those who died and those who loved them. He doesn’t realize that they have already become a part of him forever.
As Edward grows older, healthier and stronger, his chapters become shorter; he becomes less focused on surviving and more on living. The most important lesson Edward learns, and the most comforting to the reader, is that healing does not mean growing out of our pain or forgetting about it. Healing means learning how to live with it.
Many children read fairy tales to overcome their fears, and perhaps adults read disaster books for the same reason. Lately, hysterics seem to fill our days, with disasters of all types – medical, political, natural, genocidal, technological – all over the media and the internet. While none of the adults in either the real crash or in this novel it inspired, survive, Ann Napolitano’s daring examination of what took place demonstrates a way forward for all of us. She is cautious not to sensationalize, presenting even the most disturbing scenes in tasteful, simple prose, and she gives us a powerful book about living a purposeful life during the most difficult of times.