An Exploration of Trauma Through YA Novels

“My stars shine darkly over me. The malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours. Therefore I shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone. It were a bad recompense for your love to lay any of them on you.”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 2.1.3–7

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of domestic abuse, trauma, and suicide. Please continue reading with caution, and take care of yourselves.

People often talk about each other’s pain and trauma in the simplistic language of platitudes and clichés. Sometimes it’s because they don’t understand what another is going through, and other times they simply want another to feel better. Verbalizing assurance and love and thoughtfulness toward someone in this sort of situation is incredibly difficult, and it rarely helps to the degree which we intend. The truth is that most of us don’t possess the emotional tools to help others fix their lives or reframe how they perceive reality, and regardless of if we’ve endured something similar ourselves, we can never fully understand each other’s trauma. Sometimes, whether we are the person impacted by some trauma or the outsider watching its impact, we have to sit in our own misery, because there is nothing else we can do.

In this article, I will discuss two Young Adult books that examine trauma in the lives of two young women. The first, Sparrow, by Mary Cecilia Jackson, tells the story of the lives of the titular character Sparrow and her friend Lucas, before and after she experiences a brutal domestic attack by the hands of her boyfriend Tristan. The second, And We Stay, by Jenny Hubbard, intertwines the present experiences of the narrator Emily Beam with flashbacks of her life mere months before when a series of events led to the death of her boyfriend Paul. In considering these two books, we situate trauma amid the lives of two teenage girls and observe how each deals with her circumstances. As such, we see both the loneliness of pain and the delicate, slow inner strength that emerges from each of them. The quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which Sparrow also quotes, helps reflect the unique tones of these books. 

Sparrow is split into the perspectives of Savannah Darcy Rose—or Sparrow, as everyone calls her—and her friend Lucas before and after she is attacked, which depicts both someone enduring trauma and a loved one watching this pain fundamentally change the life of someone they deeply care about. Sparrow and Lucas are two talented ballet dancers who are made pas de deux partners for an upcoming performance of Swan Lake. I stumbled into this novel after searching “YA Romance” in a library database. This was one of the results, and I quickly checked it out without reading the description after I saw the tutu on the cover and my obsession with ballet got the best of me. Boy, was I shocked.

Sparrow begins a romance with Tristan, a popular boy in her class. He sweeps her off her feet with his gentleness and sweetness. She feels seen for the first time, and this is only intensified by the fact that Tristan enjoys great popularity among their peers. She quickly falls in love with him, and other people and commitments begin to slowly fade into the background.

When Lucas discovers this, he tries to tell Sparrow that Tristan isn’t the kind of person she thinks he is. He is mean and violent and gets away with anything he pleases because he has a rich and powerful father. Sparrow, newly in love, takes his warnings as signs of jealousy, but it quickly becomes apparent that Tristan is everything Lucas depicted him as, if not worse. He becomes dominating toward Sparrow, behavior that soon devolves into possessiveness and verbal abuse toward her. Not long after that, he starts physically abusing her.

Sparrow hides the truth from everybody. She lies to her family and friends, even when her injuries are obvious. She persuades herself that Tristan loves her; he can’t control his temper, and it was her fault for enabling it. She cuts herself off from everyone who truly loves her, until, one night, after suggesting to Tristan that they take a break from their relationship to focus on preparing for important upcoming events—her Swan Lake performance and his college applications—he becomes angrier than he has ever been with Sparrow. He takes her to a deserted location, hurts her until she is nearly dead, then deserts her. 

Sparrow is found and taken to the hospital, where she begins a long road to recovery. Her physical state is so damaged that even after months, she looks like a completely different person. Her mental state is even worse. She won’t speak to anybody. When her family takes her to see a therapist, she won’t even speak with her. 

Lucas is forced to stay on the sidelines as he watches Sparrow’s entire life fall apart. He cares for her deeply and wants to help fix her life, but he finds himself restrained by her refusal to speak with him and prove that Tristan was the one that attacked her. He begins his own self-destructive path that forces him to confront his own capacities for bringing about justice. 

After much time passes, Sparrow begins to open up to her therapist. Sparrow had prided herself as not being the girl who tells about the personal demons of others, but she learns that we don’t have to hold ourselves responsible for protecting those who hurt us. Our trauma is our trauma, and we deserve to treat ourselves with that recognition. In being honest with others, we can open ourselves up to being honest with ourselves. We don’t have to hide behind the experiences of other people because our reality is not less important than another’s.

And We Stay takes a slightly different perspective in focusing on the perspective of only one character: Emily Beam. Emily lives in a small town with her family, and her and her boyfriend Paul are coming to the end of their high school experience. Their lives are lightly infused with Christianity, though it becomes clear that both Emily and Paul have troubles with faith. Emily unexpectedly becomes pregnant, but she doesn’t want to keep the baby. She has dreams of attending Harvard, and having a baby would end those ambitions.

Paul, on the other hand, wants her to keep the baby. He thinks having an abortion is wrong and selfish. When Emily decides to break up with Paul, he is devastated. He tries to convince her to get back together—that they should even get married and start a family together. In a desperate attempt to change the situation, Paul brings a gun to school. Throughout the entire book, each character who knew Paul, even Emily, held the belief that Paul had never intended to hurt anybody. He had simply wanted things to go back to the way they were. In a panic, Paul used the gun to commit suicide.

After witnessing this, Emily’s parents pull her out of school. They help her get an abortion, then send her off to a boarding school. Emily meets a few nice people—her roommate K.T. and her French teacher Madame Colche. Her closest companions, however, are Emily Dickinson and her poetry, our Emily’s own poetry, and herself. Emily Beam, who had not written much in the way of poetry in the past, finds herself filled with words that she must form into poems. She writes poetry about Paul, her abortion, and her new life at boarding school. 

What is especially striking about And We Stay is the odd way that the reader feels like they are watching a story unfold through foggy glass. We see the remnants of what happened to Emily, and we hear memories of her past, but it reads exactly as one might recall a memory: short, dark, and undetailed. We don’t know a great deal about her emotional states, which makes me wonder if the author has forced the audience to feel like Lucas in Sparrow: the helpless friend who can guess what is going on in their friend’s mind, but isn’t privy to their entire reality. 

I spent the entire novel wondering why Jenny Hubbard named it And We Stay. The reasons are undoubtedly multifaceted, but one that I came away with is the dual nature of “staying,” both concerning people who have endured trauma and those who know someone who has endured trauma. Emily had people around her who stayed: her parents, her friends, her teachers, and Paul’s family. Some of these people were just around Emily, unaware of her past, but nonetheless loving and kind. While they did not step in and actively fix Emily’s life, their presence helped Emily live through her trauma. However, despite their assistance, in many ways Emily was the only person to help herself. She was the one who had to live with these experiences, who had replayed them over and over in her mind, who had to rebuild some semblance of herself and move on to live. In her own way, consciously or unconsciously, Emily decided to stay. 

While Sparrow and And We Stay depict traumatic events, they do so in such a light and gentle way that the entire experience felt like watching a feather float slowly downward. That might speak to the YA genre, but I would also argue that it speaks to the common and persistent nature of trauma. Trauma doesn’t go away easily, if ever. It lives with us, and we are forced to shape our lives and personalities around it. Moreover, I chose these books to discuss because I wanted to recognize that trauma doesn’t always need to be confronted with a loud voice or a show of having overcome such an event. As cathartic as that may be, we must also recognize that we can and more often confront trauma internally, silently, or alone. Strength doesn’t only emerge from brute force. Sometimes, we are the only ones who know about our own strength, and sometimes, we are the only person who decides to stay for ourself. I think human relationships are absolutely beautiful, but in no way can I deny that the most important relationship from which all other relational beauty emerges is the one we keep with ourself.

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