Young Adult Lit/Crit

April 22, 2008

Elsewhere: a safe opportunity to talk about death and life

Filed under: Lit Circle Picks — scrollman @ 1:08 pm

For those of you who haven’t read Elsewhere,it’s basically about a girl who dies and goes to a place called “Elsewhere” (which looks a lot like Earth), where people grow younger until they become babies again and are then sent back to the world of the living.  It is a fantasy novel, but its themes are rooted in the grounds of reality, where dealing with and accepting death is perhaps the greatest struggle we face in life.   This is an important novel for young adults because it creates a safe space for thinking about and discussing the topic of death– a topic that is very much neglected in secular culture.  Death is something that we all must face, the mystery of all mysteries, the only certain thing in life, and yet we don’t really talk about it in school.  Why not?  Well, obviously, there are some separation of church and state issues.  Death and what happens when we die is a major focus of all religions, but I don’t think the subject of death need be solely religious.  If we talk about death in terms of accepting and understanding it in the context of life, then we are able to bypass many of the “what happens when we die” questions.  

Elsewhere happens to be a highly creative book about where we go when we die, but it seems to be more about what happens when we live, and how we come to terms with inevitability.  After Liz dies, she finds that the world of the dead comes with many of the same issues as the world of the living; it turns out that growing younger, in many respects, is the same as growing older.  In both cases, she is forced to deal with changes that she did not choose, but are thrust upon her, and that she must accept.  This is actually a lot like adolescence, where we struggle against forces outside of our control: school, parents, social pressures etc.  Accepting situations that we don’t like, and learning how to live, and love the world,  in spite of things we can’t control is basically what life is all about.  As our students make the transition from childhood to adulthood, we need to help equip them with the intellectual and emotional tools they will need to adjust to a life that in many ways is unfair.  Death epitomizes all that is coercive and unjust about the world.  Like Sysiphus rolling the boulder up the hill, as hard as we try, (with the possible exception of being frozen) we can’t get out of it.  How many other things can’t we get out of?  Life binds us to responsibility, forces us to survive, or smashes us into tragic defeat–to be, or not to be.  We constantly find ourselves swimming upstream, fighting against the current, struggling to remain afloat.  It’s a wonder that any of us can be happy in this world.  But we can be; and that is the lesson of Elsewhere.  People die, but people are born as well.  We may lose friends, but we can gain others.  Everything has its duality.  Kids need to know this.  We need to to be having these types of conversations in our classes, because without them, life can seem like a nightmare.  It doesn’t have to be.  Sisyphus can be happy, rolling the boulder up the hill, and so can we.  How?  As Ray Bradbury said, do what you love.  Follow your, passion, which is what they do in Elsewhere.  Form connections with people, as Liz does with Betty.  Learn to love life, in spite of, and because of its flaws.  What choice do we really have? — Jonathan



1 Comment »

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I’m with you on this. It is a great book for the purpose you mention. The tone is not so grave, if you will. I liked how she equates elsewhere to the roots rather than branches. Did you read the interview with the autrhor in the back of the book? Zevin states her opinion on death as an “oh well, so it goes” kind of position. I think she actually says “Que sera, sera”. Did I spell that correctly? That Bradbury quote has stuck with me as well. I just finish teaching Sysiphus a couple of weeks ago. Interesting comparison. We’ll talk more tomorrow I’m sure.

    Comment by jwill7 — April 23, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

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