The Gone Away Place by Christopher Barzak | Review

This book is so beautiful and interesting. I loved it!

Aside from understanding and feeling at home in the book’s setting of rural Ohio – both the landscape and cultural norms featured in the text, the way that Barzak depicts the collective trauma of a rural town pulled at something that I haven’t engaged with in a long time, and maybe ever, and definitely not something I’ve talked about on this show before.

Because of the size of rural towns and the way we know everyone, loss of life hits a bit different in rural places. And I hadn’t really processed that until reading Ellie’s story and talking with Chris. For example, when your town is only 800 people and 90 of them are killed in a tornado outbreak, that’s over 10% of the population. The magnitude is relative, right?

While still living in Indiana, a tornado ripped through a tiny town called Henryville south of where I was from and the destruction was heartbreaking. The town rallied together to help one another in a similar way to Newfoundland in the book, supporting each other the best they can, and I reckon they probably still are. Devastation like that doesn’t heal and go away when the news coverage does. And it reminded me of the more recent devastation in Kentucky.

Even on a smaller scale, the trauma of the loss of even one life, has a huge impact on the community. For example, when I was still in school we lost:

  • A kid in the grade above me to a car accident after he light-checked a highway and ran a stop sign.
  • One of my favorite English teachers committed suicide.
  • The sister of a friend died of cystic fibrosis before anyone expected her to.
  • My senior year two of my classmates got into a fight where one accidentally killed the other one.
  • A couple of kids died in a car accident right outside my house when they were going too fast, hydroplaned, and hit a tree that bordered the soybean field.

And there have been more since I’ve left. In each of these instances, the school basically shut down or became a place of collective processing and healing. Class time was spent sharing memories or talking about how we were all dealing with the loss. I mean, my class only had 50 people in it, so if two are no longer there, the absence is extremely noticeable. It was understood and expected that no one would be at school during the days of the visitations and funerals.

What I learned was this: Even individual traumas become collective in rural places, and The Gone Away Place brought insight into that and helped me think about it in a way I never had before.

I think every rural town has some version of this story – has trauma that it might have dealt with but might not’ve. So, I think teaching this book through a critical place-based lens could be really helpful for making space for students to process those traumas. It would be an excellent addition to the trauma-informed practices rural teachers are already using in their classrooms.

You can learn more about The Gone Away Place and listen to my interview with Chris on the Reading Rural YAL podcast. If you listen and like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find us. You can also listen via the Reading Rural YAL category on the blog.

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