I heard about Boo by Neil Smith on Facebook. I "liked" a page dedicated to the old businesses that used to be around my home town of Hoffman Estates, Illinois during the 60s, the 70s, and 80s. Someone commented on they were reading this book, which has the main character going to Helen Keller Junior High School, the same one I went to. Intrigued, I got the book from my library here and took on reading the story of Oliver "Boo" Dalrymple, a pale eighth grader who aspires to be a scientist and whom, not surprisingly, a pariah within his social structure.
It is the first week of the new school year, September 7, 1979. Boo and his classmates are marching through their school, going to classes, hunting through their lockers (Boo's is number 106) when something…happens. The next thing Boo realizes is he's not in school, but in some other place called Town. And soon after, he understands that he's dead and Town is the afterlife exclusively for 13 year-old Americans. As Boo narrates his story to his parents, he tells them that in Town there are no trees or animals, just endless rows of redbrick dormitories surrounded by unscalable walls. No one grows or ages, but everyone arrives just slightly altered from who he or she was before. To Boo’s great surprise, the qualities that made him an outcast at home win him friends; and he finds himself capable of a joy he has never experienced. Soon after another boy from his school, Johnny Henzel arrives and brings him a surprising news about the circumstances of the boys' deaths. But there is a darker side to life after death—and as Boo and Johnny attempt to learn what happened that fateful day, they discover a disturbing truth that will have profound repercussions for both of them.
This is no gimmicky fairy tale though, as Smith takes on serious issues that effect teenagers today like metal illness, bullying, suicide and school shootings. Yes, it maybe set in 1979 and those issues were hardly news today, but that's not the point here. Neil Smith, although born in Canada and now resides there, went to school at Helen Keller Junior High (and maybe Lakeview Elementary which he also mentions) and is using his school years as template to explore modern issues that teenagers face. Boo can be anyone, really, a thirteen year-old whom is a science nerd. And always, through time immortal, those boys have always been tortured. Then there's Johnny, a boy whom had psychiatric problems before coming to Town. He too seems destined to have a horrible label.
The book become a bit more darker and at times shocking towards the end, and Boo's Cliff Clavin style of knowing everything about everything gets a bit weary, but it's a fantastic book for adults and teens. It opens a door to understanding that the past and the present are pretty much connected. Our problems mirror our children's when navigating the teen years. Plus, it was just weird to here the names of two schools my siblings and I went to in a major novel.