Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 2, 2015
Genres: Death & Dying, Friendship, Social Issues, Suicide, Young Adult
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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A teen grapples with ALS and his decision to die in this devastatingly beautiful debut novel infused with the haunting grace of samurai death poetry and the noble importance of friendship. Abe Sora is going to die, and he’s only seventeen years old. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), he’s already lost the use of his legs, which means he can no longer attend school. Seeking a sense of normality, Sora visits teen chat rooms online and finally finds what he’s been longing for: friendship without pity. As much as he loves his new friends, he can’t ignore what’s ahead. He’s beginning to lose the function of his hands, and soon he’ll become even more of a burden to his mother. Inspired by the death poems of the legendary Japanese warriors known as samurai, Sora makes the decision to leave life on his own terms. And he needs his friends to help him.
Oh, this beautiful, difficult book. Fearlessly confronting in a painfully quiet way, and you guys…when I finished it, I turned to my spouse and said, “This book is going to get banned.”
I’m by no means an expert, but I have had Japanese exchange student friends and college roommates, and for a brief time I stayed with a host family in Japan myself. Unless things have changed drastically, I felt the novel was very realistic in its portrayal of Japanese teenagers, how the disabled are viewed and treated in Japan, and endless cultural details, most especially honne and tatemae. I also loved how it showed the power of the internet as a tool for isolated people (and any of us, really) to make new, long-lasting, and true friendships that are just as valid as the friendships we make “irl.”
The Last Leaves Falling starts out slowly, setting the ambiance of Sora’s day-to-day life and mirroring his gentle personality. It is slow but still compelling; simply not rushed in any way. But once the pace picks up, it continues to do so until the very end. I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough.
A teen protagonist with a terminal illness? I expected at least a few clichés and platitudes, and was happy to come across none. This story is honest and sweet, brutal and unrelenting, leaving your mind racing with thoughts. Benwell has created a protagonist who is easy to love, easy to feel compassion for—not pity. Sora brings the reader along as he faces his fears about death and dying and tackles numerous issues related to keeping our dignity until the very end of our lives.