Friday, June 20, 2014

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

I thought this was going to be one of those outstanding but sad novels like The Yellow Birds or Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  I thought it was going to be a beautifully written book that would help me bear witness to the effects of war and poverty.  I love those novels because they challenge me and imbed me in a world I need to understand.  But, We Are Called to Rise is a different animal.  Yes, it’s beautifully written, bears witness, and challenges but in addition it offers incredible hope.  It blindsided me with the unexpected pleasure of watching people do the right thing and it astonished me with the simple joy of observing people who care.

Set in the Las Vegas most of us don’t know, the Las Vegas where real people live oblivious to the neon and glitz of the strip, four realistic characters weave intersecting stories into a cohesive whole. Bashkim is an earnest eight-year-old boy working to help his Albanian refugee parents survive. He seems older than eight because the turmoil and poverty in his home force him to be wise.  Given a school assignment to write a local soldier serving in Iraq, Bashkim pens a letter that sets up a chain of unexpected events.

Luis, the tormented recipient of Bashkim’s letter, lies in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from an injury he doesn’t recall happening. His anguished thoughts and dreams spill onto the page making the reader wonder if he’ll ever be able to tell enough to be helped. Enter Dr. Ghosh, a VA psychiatrist, who listens and offers him caring treatment and possibly a way out of his troubles.

Average-seeming Avis opens the book as her husband unexpectedly leaves her for another woman.  She’s also deeply concerned about her son Nate’s mental health after his third stint in Iraq. She lost her baby daughter Emily when she was barely pregnant with Nate and her life is a testament to “how quickly life could change, how quickly everything important could disappear, to always be trying to feel this unexpectedly beautiful life to its core.”

Roberta is a lawyer, a Las Vegas native. She serves as a volunteer advocate for children. She cares deeply and sometimes gets hurt.  She’s anxious to make certain that Bashkim and children like him get what they need not what the system spits out for them.  She and other “helpers” in the novel try to do what’s right.

What if everyone worked together to do what was best for a child?  What if “the helpers” all really helped?  What if the staffs at all our VA hospitals had the time, training, and temperament to help returning veterans as Dr. Ghosh tries to help Luis?  The epigraph of the novel tells us what’s to come as it hints at what could happen if . . .

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies
-- Emily Dickinson

Author Laura McBride says, “I wanted to tell a story that might make a reader have a big feeling, the sense that no matter how cruel life could be in a given moment, no matter how terrible the consequences of a tiny mistake, it was ultimately beautiful to live.  I didn’t set out to write a book about war or poverty or racism, I just wanted the reader to love a child enough to feel devastated when that child’s heart was broken and euphoric when that child got a chance at hope.”  Readers: Debut author McBride accomplished her goal.

Summing it Up:
This novel gave me hope and a feeling that all might just be right in the world if each of us answered the call to rise. Laura McBride eloquently showcases a group of people who rise to help others who probably wouldn’t make it without their help. She touches the sky with this authentic, uplifting story of a boy I’ll never forget and the people (they aren’t characters to me – they’re real people) who cared enough to try to help him and others in need.  I’ve never wanted to travel to Las Vegas but I could change my mind if I could visit Bashkim, Luis, Avis, Roberta and some other people I already know and love who happen to live there. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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  1. I wrote about "helpers" in this post and thought readers might want to know the origin of this. Mr. Rogers often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world."