July 17, 2021

Review: Just Like That

Just Like That
By Gary D. Schmidt
Available now from Clarion Books
Review copy

Just Like That is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, both of which I haven't read. I thought it stood well on its own, although I did get the sense at the beginning that I was reading the sequel to a book I hadn't read.

Meryl Lee Kowalski is struggling with grief, or the "Blank," as she calls it. Every night on the news, she sees reports of soldiers killed in Vietnam who never got to say good-bye to their loved ones. She struggles to handle the weight of it and the way it mirrors her feelings about her best friend Holling Hoodhood, who died suddenly in a car crash. She never got to say goodbye to him. Her parents don't know how to handle her feelings and are secretly dealing with their own issues, and choose to send Meryl Lee to St. Elene's Preparatory Academy for Girls. 

Meryl Lee struggles to fit into the boarding school culture, which involves things like not talking to the girls who work around the school. It also requires doing a sport, which Meryl Lee had never considered before and initially fails at, until finding something strangely compelling about the violence of lacrosse. She also starts to notice a power struggle between the headmistress and some teachers with different political views.

In a parallel story line, Matt Coffin moves into a shack on the coast. He's on the run from someone, and dealing with his own grief. He starts to carve out a life for himself, a storyline that appeals to the part of me that loved rugged domestic stories like Hatchet and the first Boxcar Children. He also encounters some helpful adults that give him room to approach them - one of whom happens to be the headmistress of St. Elene's.

The eventual meeting of Meryl Lee and Matt is inevitable, but the path to that point is an enjoyable one. Just Like That is stuffed full of incident and ideas and interweaving stories. I never felt like Gary D. Schmidt had lost control of the plot, however. He masterfully balances the disparate elements of Just Like That, tying everything together with the themes of grief and the struggle to heal. Just Like That is  deeply sad novel, but also a very funny and hopeful one.

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