Do you remember the first book that ever made you cry? For me, it was Bridge to Terabithia. I remember thinking at the time that I had been betrayed by the book somehow: that it should have had a happy ending, but it didn’t. However, I have come to appreciate stories that make me sad for their cathartic properties, especially as reading them gives me a way to investigate my feelings about events happening in my own life.
Missing Okalee is the story of twelve-year-old Phoebe, a girl who is coming into her own in her small Montana hometown. She loves her younger sister Okalee, but she often feels she does not measure up to Okalee’s intelligence and personality. Every year, the sisters secretly participate in River Day, an event of their own making, where they brave the frigid waters of the nearby Grayling River weeks before it is acceptable to do so. This year promises to be different than others, but when Okalee is determined to cross by herself, the risks inherent to this activity become tragically palpable. Please see my full review here.
While I felt that the primary story arc was clear before it was revealed in the text— thanks to the title of the book and the clues planted in the first chapters—this design permitted me instead to dive deeper into Phoebe’s psyche as she deals with the aftermath of her and Okalee’s ill-fated decisions. The level of guilt Phoebe feels is intense, especially as she adds lies to the mix. Young children who are emerging into adolescence struggle with many similar emotions, learning how right and wrong take on more extreme repercussions as you get older. More than once, I was struck by tears as I read about not only Phoebe’s experience but also the complex feelings of others in her community through her eyes.
This book is written in the first person, focusing entirely on Phoebe and her struggles coming to terms with a life-altering experience. Like many adolescents, she loses sight of others as she withdraws inside herself, only realizing later that her friends and family have feelings, too. Not everyone is as forgiving as one might prefer, which enhances the depth of the sorrow felt by both Phoebe and the reader, alike. I appreciate that Phoebe speaks with a competent school counselor and has people around her who care about her well-being, and while the circumstances of this story would be difficult for anyone to move past, I thought the resolution was just right.
Though this is on the shorter side of middle grade novels, it packs a huge emotional punch. It reads quickly and flows easily, but readers will find it necessary to set the book aside at times to process what has taken place. While this is written for middle grade readers, I connected with more layers of the plot because of my age and life experience. No longer do I just resonate with the youthful characters, but parental figures and other adults take on a stronger focus now, as well. If you’re looking for a cathartic story that will remind you of the importance of love and family, this is a great pick.
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