A few years ago I heard Michael Christie read from his then new short story collection, The Beggar’s Garden. I enjoyed the stories and so was curious to read more from him, now in novel form.
If I Fall, If I Die doesn’t disappoint and I found it even more readable and enjoyable than his short stories. The novel begins the day that eleven-year-old Will leaves his house for the first time. Will has lived Inside for as long as he can remember. He and his mother have a safe life, as long as they never leave their house. Will paints Masterpieces, wears his Helmet, and puts on a rubber wetsuit to change the light bulbs. The rooms of their house are named after various major cities of the world. This is all Will knows. Then, one day, he suddenly ventures Outside. He meets a boy named Marcus who tells him nothing can really hurt him and Will’s view of things begins to change. Soon he begins to spend more time Outside and he insists on going to school. When he discovers that Marcus has disappeared, Will makes it his mission to find out what happened to his first friend. He befriends Jonah, who teaches him how to skateboard and they work on solving the mystery behind Marcus’ disappearance together.
Part of growing up is discovering the things about your family that you think are normal but it turns out nobody else does. Will loves his mother and he works hard to keep what he refers to as The Black Lagoon at bay. His whole life he has believed her perception of the world but as he ventures further from home he realizes that not only are people surviving Outside but that injuries and danger are a part of life. A part of growing up.
This is really a story of growing up. It’s a story of growing up in Thunder Bay, where the traditional grain industry has died and been replaced with crime and alcoholism. Christie skillfully weaves in chapters from Will’s mother’s perspective where we are able to understand what traps her Inside. This also offers a thoughtful comparison between her childhood, shared with her twin brother, and Will’s. Her generation worked in the dangerous grain elevators where deaths were common. After the elevators shut down, Will’s generation still lives and dies among them but now those deaths are more complicated and, somehow, more tragic. This is a story about racial tensions – the divide between the white residents of Thunder Bay and the First Nations across the culvert. Although the book seems to be set in the early 90s (though the timeline is never stated), these racial differences and complications are entirely relevant across Canada today. Marcus’ disappearance goes largely unnoticed because he is a First Nations kid in foster care. When Will goes to the police he is met with ambivalence and a prevalent belief that kids like Marcus will always get in trouble. We see these beliefs again in the different ways those in authority treat Will and Jonah, who is also First Nations, even though Jonah is much smarter and more driven than Will.
Will’s investigation becomes more and more complicated and slightly less believable as the story progresses. I could buy that the maze of crime and lies that he wanders into is realistic but not quite that a twelve-year-old boy could come through so unscathed.
If I Fall, If I Die is a terrific first novel and I look forward to more from Christie.