Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
Published: May 17, 2016 by Simon & Schuster
THINGS FINLEY HART DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT
• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)
Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.
With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.
Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.
December of last year, I found that blurb on Goodreads while looking through upcoming middle grade titles and I knew I needed to preorder this book. I’ve been dealing with discovering and tackling my own mental health over the past two years especially, and I found myself trying to capture that state of unease in my own writing. Also, the fact that Claire Legrand herself has had depression and anxiety since a young age (read her story here) suggested insight that might not be present from the outside. And I was not disappointed.
At 370ish pages, there’s quite a lot going on in Some Kind of Happiness, but it all ties together well, and I found the many characters and conflicts to be refreshing (and beneficial for the main character!), as when I think of anxiety, I think of being trapped in a room alone with only repeated, disapraging thoughts. At first, it seems that the book tells two stories in nearly alternating chapters, one from Finley’s first-person point of view, and one about the “orphan girl” in Finley’s imagined Everwood (who is explictely meant to be her). As the novel goes on, however, the Everwood chapters become more scarce, while the realistic chapters blend these two worlds, as Finley, her cousins, and her grandparents’ neighbors they are forbidden to speak to begin taking part in Finley’s imagined world in the wood behind the grandparents’ house. The game brings Finley closer to her cousins, helps to uncover the mystery behind why her father left the family, and the beginning of a sweet romance. Meanwhile, her parents are going through a divorce, and she discovers something else her grandmother is keeping a secret.
So there’s plenty going on for Finley’s mental health to intensify, but what I appreciate is that this isn’t the trigger/cause/beginning of her anxiety and depression. She’s familiar with these “blue days,” as she calls them, familiar with what it feels like to “lose herself,” familiar with night terrors that she hides because she doesn’t want to worry her parents and wants to appear “normal.” I also liked how Legrand included the somatic symptoms that arise, even though Finley would often say she was sick when she couldn’t get out of bed. It’s true that mental illness may not manifest until teenage years or even later, but it’s also important that there are middle grade books about young children who deal with these issues, because they do exist–and like Finley, they are likely scared and just want to fit in (even as a 17-year-old, it was scary). It’s so often though of as a “mature topic” (more on that term Friday!) that will appear in YA, but not much earlier. (And I’d argue, from my observations, that quite a few YA books dealing with mental health topics are often more about suicide than anything.) Reading it now, I recognized Finley’s thoughts and doubts, some of which I listed above, and it’s another step forward in understanding my thoughts and feeling less alone. And for those who don’t deal with these issues, it can help them better understand those who do.
It’s also made clear that Finley’s depression isn’t logical, and that is okay. She notes that sometimes, even when she’s playing with her cousins in the Everwood, she just feels sad and it stays. She also falls into the trap many of us do: comparing situations and finding our feelings illogical and concluding they might be selfish:
Any sadness I may feel is nothing compared to what he must have been feeling, or what Stick must have felt when her husband died.
I have no right to my sadness when there are dead families and burned houses.
The memories of all the sadness I have ever experienced come rushing back to me in a stream. Days when I could not smile, when I felt heavy and pushed down. Nights when I could not sleep. Mornings when I could not wake up.
These moments of sadness seem so small, now. They seem pathetic.
Another aspect of the story I loved were the relationships, whether it was Finely and her grandparents, her cousins, her parents, or the boys next door (cute adorable friendship and crushes!). As Finley gets to know her cousins and the boys, they become her support system. They enjoy playing along with Everwood, and even the teenager who originally seemed distant comforts Finley when she needs it. Meanwhile, the grandmother especially creates a suffocating atmosphere by trying to keep the family’s appearances and reputation as flawless as possible, finding her observed emotional trouble as a problem that needed to be fixed by a child psychologist. (Note to anyone caring for a child: I do not recommend this attitude.) But despite their disagreements, Finley and her family still find that they love each other, because where love is concerned, mistakes aren’t the worst thing to happen to a person. Everyone is more than they initially seem, because they all share a human thread that connects them.
Among all of the emotional complexity, there’s plenty of mystery keeping the pages turning, leading to an exciting climax. And through it all, Finley not only learns about her family, but she also learns about herself and the “Dark Ones” (as her mental health is known in the Everwood), and the importance of telling others and recieving help. “Depression” and “anxiety” are also named at the end, leaving nothing up for debate.
Perhaps my favorite quote:
The world is not a sure place anymore. Maybe it has never been. Maybe it has always been a mess–some kind of twisted, cosmic mess we can’t possibly understand.