Let me first say, when it comes to "The Loose Ends List" by Carrie Firestone, I am impressed at the courage it took to write such a book. In her quiet way, Ms. Firestone hints at this in her opening dedication which says, "For the unlikely revolutionaries. The ones who are brave. The ones who change the world."
Clearly, Carrie Firestone has to be one of those "unlikely revolutionaries" in choosing to write a book that essentially challenges her young adult audience of 14 and on up to think seriously about the issue of euthanasia.
You'd hardly think that this is actually the subject matter of this book what with its flower strewn, sunshiny yellow cover! Yet this is the genius of this book--that it throws down the gauntlet to its young adult audience and asks them to think deeply regarding the complex issue of end of life decisions and the possibility of death with dignity under the professional care of doctors and nurses. What better way to engage young people and get them to think?
The story revolves around "Gram" who has been diagnosed with a terminal case of pancreatic cancer. Rather than subject herself to endless rounds of chemo, Gram decides to go on a death with dignity cruise and end her life on her own terms when the time is right. As she says, "I'm not sitting around some hospital room with fluorescent lighting, stuck to a chemo drip for the last few months of my life. I've a booked a cruise. It's done."
My first response to this book with its center focus on an ocean cruise was to say how quaint. Clearly, now that airplanes are the dominant mode of transportation, the central romance of the cruise ship has lost much of its sparkle. Still, Carrie Firestone's choice of a cruise ship goes a long way to enhance her theme of a boat full of individuals who are struggling with some of life's most fundamental issues--birth and death, good and evil, intimacy and alienation.
It is important to note that ships have long been used as an allegory for life itself particularly in connection to the book "Ship of Fools" by Katharine Anne Porter. "Ship of Fools", which took Katharine Anne Porter 22 years to write, was an immediate bestseller once it was published in 1962. It is a book about an ocean liner traveling from Mexico to Germany and tells the stories of all the passengers that are on the ship, much as Carrie Firestone's book "The Loose Ends List" does. Both books attempt to struggle with and make sense of the legacy of the Nazi's with more or less success. This is something that you as the reader will have to determine.
As a matter of interest, the term ship of fools derives from the renaissance practice of getting rid of people with mental illness by sticking them on a boat and sending them out to sea.
Of course, this is not what Gram is up to. The cruise Gram has booked is on the Wishwell, a secret death with dignity ship run by an underground movement of euthanasia sympathizers. Along with her, Gram takes her family including her sister, Rose, her daughter and son-in-law, Trish and Aaron, her son and son-in-law, Uncle Billy and Wes, her grandaughter, Maddie the central protagonist of the book, and her other grandaughter, Janie. In addition, she brings along an old lover, the Jamaican musician Bob Johns with whom she has rekindled an end of life romance.
As the story progresses, Maddie meets a mysterious young man who will have a profound impact on her life, and at the same time she meets the other patients on the cruise who have signed up to end their lives on their own terms, and have brought their families along to accompany them on the journey. By the end of the cruise Maddie will have experienced significant friendships, immense joy, and great heartbreak, as well as the establishment of a powerful bond with the Wishwell community that clearly does not end once the cruise is over.
The more difficult part of "The Loose Ends List" was the large number of characters in the story, being able to marshall all these personalities and explain their backstories. If you didn't pay attention as characters were introduced it was easy to get lost. At the same time, you get very involved in the relationships between people and learn how they come to terms with struggle and crisis. There is a big secret related to what is in the bottom of the boat which I will leave you all to discover. It's very moving. I don't want to betray too much!
The book conveys a great deal of home grown wisdom such as: What you need to do in life is take the pain and grow beauty, and "When you live inside each moment it is hard to have regrets" and "It is not how long we live but how well we live that counts" and "even the smallest adventures count, even the briefest human interactions matter, and there are no limits to the joy this life offers." It also makes a strong case for choosing to forgive yourself and well as others.
All of this could become incredibly schmalzy, but the book is saved by a narrator who is stubbornly unsentimental, determinedly honest, and outrageously humorous.
As you read about each of the people on the cruise who plan on ending their lives, and learn about their struggles and heartbreaks, readers eventually begin to care deeply about these people and worry about what will happen to them. In fact, I'd say it is really hard to get through this book without sobbing at some point. For those of us who have lost friends and family I think this is a good thing because sometimes a nice, long cry can be very healing.
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