Letters with Secrets: Personal Effects by E. M. Kokie

Personal Effects took me a while read, not because I wasn’t interested, but because I was basically sobbing the whole way through it. I was crying in a good way, but perhaps not a socially acceptable one. This book gets you in your heart with its very simple and real story.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.

Matt is full of anger. Frustration. Even young men who have not experienced the devastating loss of a brother dying during combat will relate to this character. The voice is so authentic. This is how teen boys think and talk.

I also love that this book isn’t being explicitly marketed as a LGBTQ book and that there’s no spoilers on the jacket. This is a book that will appeal to lots of kids, whether or not they have an explicit interest in queer themes, and is an opportunity to expose readers to these ideas in an organic way. When I heard Brian Katcher speak at the YA Literature Symposium last week, he related how adamant his editor was that the reveal that the love interest in Almost Perfect was a transgendered character be a total surprise, yet the book was marketed and labeled as queer when it was published, which while making it easier to find if someone was explicitly looking for a book with these issues, probably alienated some readers who were put off by that sort of content, but might have ultimately enjoyed the book. It’s a tough issue, and I’m glad to have both options.

The story opens with Matt at school trying to ignore the taunts of another student who is part of the pro-peace movement and walks around wearing shirts that say “Bush lied” and such. As someone who has had several friends and family who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet is one of those peace-loving liberals who protested the invasion of Iraq, this kind of tension at the beginning of the book hooked me right away. I’ve lost lifelong friends over these sorts of disagreements (that’s a long, sad story) and felt alienated from my cousins who serve for our differences of opinion on the matter. What surprised me is that given my personal beliefs, it’s Matt, who gets suspended for beating up the taunting pro-peace peer, with whom I identify and want to cheer on. The power of literature to challenge our beliefs and let us see issues from a different perspective is extraordinary. It’s also why I feel it’s important to read broadly and outside one’s comfort zone.

While home from school during his suspension, Matt’s brother’s personal effects are delivered. His father has all but erased the memory of TJ from their house, hiding the flag that lay on his casket and the pictures of him that used to be scattered around the house. Matt risks a beating from his angry, violent, former military father to explore the contents of his personal effects, and what he finds sends him on a journey: dozens of very intimate letters signed simply “C” and one letter from TJ to the address on the postmark of all the others. Matt has to deliver it, and in doing so, finds out who is brother truly was and the kind of person he wants to be—an accepting one, who’s strong enough to stand up to his father.

I’m not gonna lie; this book is heart-wrenching, through and through. Matt’s best friend, Shauna, who he is in love with, is a bright spot. Her unfailing support even when Matt is being a total asshole is endearing, and their shy romance is well done and feels true to anyone who has suddenly realized they were in love with their best friend.

I loved this story, with it’s believable, compelling plot, and I loved these characters, who all felt full and lively without becoming caricatures. I love this book because even though it features queer themes and people of color, it is so much more than an “issue” book. Yes, it’s a book about grief, about the military, about domestic abuse, and about mental illness. But it’s also about friendship and family and identity. The book transcends its themes to get at the truth.

This was a book I featured on my list of titles I was excited about for this fall, and so far, it’s the best. Over at YALSA’s The Hub, there’s a post on other great young adult novels that tell stories of teens who serve in the military and other post-war themes. I’ve also written a post about LGBTQ literature at the The Hub that went up today.

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