This is a review of one of last spring’s featured books. I got a little behind, so I decided to wait to share it until we were back posting regularly. It actually worked out better than I could have hoped because this book pairs up so well with our September featured novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. They’re both written in a journal or diary like confessional style, but this one has two male protagonists, while Gabi has a female protagonist. It’d be great to have your class read both and do a comparative analysis.
He Forgot to Say Goodbye
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Published by Simon and Schuster 2010
Age Level: 12 and Up
Ramiro Lopez and Jake Upthegrove don’t appear to have much in common. Ram lives in the Mexican-American working-class barrio of El Paso called “Dizzy Land.” His brother is sinking into a world of drugs, wreaking havoc in their household. Jake is a rich West Side white boy who has developed a problem managing his anger. An only child, he is a misfit in his mother’s shallow and materialistic world. But Ram and Jake do have one thing in common: They are lost boys who have never met their fathers. This sad fact has left both of them undeniably scarred and obsessed with the men who abandoned them. As Jake and Ram overcome their suspicions of each other, they begin to move away from their loner existences and realize that they are capable of reaching out beyond their wounds and the neighborhoods that they grew up in. Their friendship becomes a healing in a world of hurt.
I’ve yet to read a Sáenz novel that doesn’t elicit strong emotions. I found myself laughing out loud at some parts and crying at others. On the surface it may sound very similar to Sáenz’s most recent YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, but the two novels actually share few similarities (other than the wonderful writing). It’s a contemporary coming-of-age novel about two very different young men who have one pivotal thing in common: fathers who left and never seemed to look back. Despite the opposite circumstances of their lives, this one thing is enough to help them eventually forge a friendship unlike any either of them has had before.
The almost confessional style of writing with alternating points of view can take some getting used to. Also, as our book group found, it takes some time to become accustomed to being in the heads of two teenage boys. Let’s be honest, there’s a reason most of us wouldn’t choose to relive that period in our lives. If you find you’re not immediately engaged, this is one book where I would say stick it out and keep going. It’s well worth it. On the other hand, these same things may make it more accessible and engaging to a young adult reader. Like most of Sáenz’s novels, his main protagonists are young men. Yet, because he creates strong female friends for his male characters, his stories can engage all students.
There’s no sugarcoated reality in Sáenz’s writing. I think that’s part of what I appreciate so much about his work. He doesn’t run away from the hard stuff. Instead, he dives right in, taking you on a journey that will most certainly be painful to read, but I’ll also bet will change the way you look at the world. Life isn’t easy. In He Forgot to Say Goodbye, Sáenz takes on the pain of absent parents, death, racism, drug abuse, and inequality in education. The majority of us have suffered some kind of trauma and we have the scars to show for it. If we’re going to prepare our students to be successful in life, we have to talk about these kinds of things. We have to admit that as educators, adults, and/or parents we’ve struggled, and we’ve been changed by these experiences. We have to model for our young adults how to deal with the emotions that the struggles or trauma bring up.
I love Saenz’s books because they bring to the surface all these emotions that we so rarely address in school. He has a way of describing both the internal and tangible physical manifestations of emotions in a way that few other YA authors do. In doing this, he not only gives voice to the experiences of so many teenagers, but also brings awareness to the idea of emotional well being, or the lack of it, something often entirely neglected in our curricula. As I know I’ve said before, books like this are so essential because they create the space to have these kinds of necessary conversations.
If for no other reason, this book should be in our classrooms and libraries because it’s excellent writing. If we learn to write through what we read, Sáenz is a phenomenal writing teacher. He has a way with words that is unlike most writers, maybe because he’s a poet as well as a novelist. I’m not sure I’ve read a better example of the way in which the voice of a character as portrayed through the writing creates such a clear picture of personality as is done here for Ramiro and Jake.
I hope you’ll read it, and if you do, let me know what you think!
Our complete educator’s guide is available here.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
If you’re interested in learning more about the author and hearing what he has to say about his work and other issues, check out the following resources:
- PBS News Hour podcast interview with Sáenz discussing U.S.-Mexico Border
- NPR article and interview with Sáenz on “Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit”
- Lannan Foundation podcast reading and conversation with Sáenz
- Texas Monthly in-depth article about his personal life and journey, and his newest adult short story collection: Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club