I was about a third of the way into another book when I opened Setting Free the Kites by Alex George. I was just going to get the publisher’s name for my spreadsheet where I track books I have promised to read and review. Then I made the mistake of reading the first paragraph. Do not do this if you have places to go, things to do, and people to see. From the first page, you will be lost in late Seventies Maine with two wonderful young boys who find joy in life even in the midst of incomparable tragedies.
Robert Carter and Nathan Tilly met on the first day of Eighth Grade. Nathan was a newcomer to town and intervened when Hollis Calhoun, town bully and Robert’s nemesis, was holding Robert’s head in the toilet while flushing. A visit to the principal’s office doesn’t quite cement their friendship, but when the next day Nathan’s father falls off a roof in front of them and dies, they are bound by being witness and by the tragedy.
Nathan wears his grief deep inside. On the outside, it’s all bravado. His mother seems to shut down, closing him out, shutting herself in her office typing endlessly. Nathan doubts she even puts paper in the typewriter. As Robert says later in the book, “Grief did not bring people closer. Loss turned you inward and shut you down.”
Robert’s older brother Liam has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and his family knows that he will die. He hears his parents talking, his father grateful for al the time they have and his mother fretting about all the time they won’t have. He and Nathan spend a lot of time with Liam whose spirit is certainly not ready to give in. He’s sending out college applications, even if it’s likely he won’t be well enough to go, if he lives that long.
The story follows Robert and Nathan’s friendship through family tragedy, grief, and all sorts of adventures and misadventures. There are hysterically funny scenes including one with a mongoose, a miniature golf attraction, and the bully Hollis that will never be forgotten. There’s joy in the midst of sorrow, such as a wild wheelchair adventure on ice that will make you smile while your heart is breaking. It’s all profoundly human, full of a gentle and compassionate love for the characters.
Robert’s dad owns the Fun-a-lot, a carnival that is the town’s major attraction, bringing in the tourists that are its main support. One of my favorite lines comes from Lewis, the old maintenance man that Robert works with during the summer. When Robert is puzzled that people are not having as much fun as he expects, Lewis explains that they dream of a vacation with their family, but when they get there, they realize they don’t much like spending time with them. “That’s the most valuable thing about full-time employment, Robert. It keeps you away from the people you love.”
I loved Setting Free the Kites. As the saying goes, “I laughed, I cried…” The balance of grief and joy had me on an emotional roller-coaster every bit as wild as the roller-coaster at Fun-a-lot. I loved the friendship between Nathan and Robert. They were not friends simply because they both knew the nature of loss, but because they truly knew and loved each other. The complication of Nathan’s infatuation with an older student was funny, important, and profound. Their friendship with Lewis the caretaker was wonderful and heartwarming. There is such love for people in this book that I want everyone to read it.
Nonetheless, I can’t give it my top rating. I want to eliminate the entirely unnecessary epilogue. I wish I had not read it. Not that it betrayed the story, but it was just so completely unnecessary. I did not need Robert to read about Nathan’s mom in the paper. It was so much better suspecting and believing this glimmering fancy without its absolute confirmation. Stories like this do not need to wrapped up forty years later with children raised and everything settled. It’s like Alex George wrote this wonderful story and then in the end, decided he could not trust us readers at all. He had to spell out the obvious and explain the explicable. Framing the story around the old mill at the beginning and the end, but in the epilogue, he could have had Robert come home, put on his brother’s record and skip all the rest of the updates.
That tendency to explain too much is a small, but discordant, thread throughout the book. There are these beautifully written passages that say so much. Even small sentences that grasp your heart, but then when explicated lose all their power. When Liam dies (not a spoiler, you know it will happen from the beginning of the book), Robert’s father sighed, “Sometimes, bad news doesn’t travel fast enough.” He’s sitting at the phone with the list of friends and family he needed to inform. We didn’t need three paragraphs about those phone calls. That sentence was enough.
Aside from those quibbles, I loved Setting Free the Kites. I loved Robert and Nathan, Lewis, Liam, Robert’s parents, and nearly everyone in the book. I loved how Robert heard glimpses of his parents’ marriage that helped him understand them as individuals, not as parents alone. I loved the gruff kindness of Lewis. I loved how deeply situated this story is in its setting. You will feel that you are really there in Maine, on the beach, at the mill, at the carnival, The setting is fully realized, as much as the people are. I love that I came to care so deeply about these people. I think you will, too.