I love Loretta Ellsworth for two reasons: she is from Minnesota (I have had the chance to meet her several times and she is terrific), and she writes about things no one else writes about (shrouding women, organ donation, great literature, and now synesthesia and photographic memory). I read so much young adult literature with the same tried and true storylines, that something new always (at least initially) grabs my attention. Ellsworth’s latest book, Unforgettable, is her best book yet!
Before I picked up Unforgettable, I had just finished reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, which led me to look up and think about the condition known as “synesthesia.” So it was meant to be that I would next pick up Unforgettable by Loretta Ellsworth, which begins with Baxter Green remembering the day when he was three years old and landed on his head after falling off a swing. This head trauma results in Baxter now remembering every single thing that he experiences. In addition, he associates sounds, particularly the sounds of people’s voices, with some other visceral visual image—for instance, the girl he loves in kindergarten sounds like yellow daffodils.
Twelve years later, fifteen-year-old Baxter and his mother have just moved to Wellington, Minnesota. His mother’s former boyfriend, Dink, is being released from a California prison. Dink was in prison because he forced a young Baxter to use his memory skills to memorize account numbers at his place of employment, which he then used for criminal activity. This plot strand adds suspense and drama to Unforgettable. Another strand involves the real reason that Baxter and his mother ended up in Wellington. Unbeknownst to his mother, Baxter has seen to it that they “chose” Wellington because he knows that the girl with the daffodil voice, Halle Phillips, now resides in Wellington. Ellsworth uses allusions to The Great Gatsby to compare the relationship between Baxter and Halle to that of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. This plot strand adds romance and its own suspense to the novel. A third strand involves mining in northern Minnesota. Wellington is a mining town on the Iron Range where many have died from Mesothelioma, a cancer known to be caused by taconite, a by-product of iron ore mining. It just so happens that Halle’s father is an executive at the mine. More tension is added. Ellsworth weaves the three strands in Unforgettable together seamlessly to create a cloth that the reader can wrap himself/herself in and savor.
In terms of characterization, Ellsworth creates multi-dimensional characters who have realistic strengths and weaknesses. We invest in them, particularly Baxter, whose first-person narration allows us into his head, and we root for things to turn out well for them. The antagonists are sometimes a bit over the top and stereotypical—especially in the use of the name “Dink” for the former boyfriend.
There is much here to learn, ponder, and discuss. For those who have read The Great Gatsby (in many Minnesota high schools, this is found in junior level American literature curriculums), the allusions to Jay and Daisy add dimension to the story. For others, this might be a turn-off, as it is a considerable element in the story. As a former English teacher, I do appreciate Ellsworth’s homage to the classic literature, however. This was similar to her use of To Kill a Mockingbird in In Search of Mockingbird. The theme of harmful work environments, particularly those in the mines on the Iron Range, will be of particular interest to Minnesota teens. More universal themes, such as bullying, being different, being true to yourself, friendship, learning from your mistakes, being careful what you wish for, etc. will ring true for all teens and give teen readers much to consider.
All in all, this is a fine addition to young adult realistic fiction. I am going to buy more copies for my library. Congratulations to Minnesota author, Loretta Ellsworth!
—Terri Evans, high school media specialist
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