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“And then, suddenly, I feel it. Like when you know someone is walking up behind you. Or when you sense that it’s just about to rain. I know that Ethan is telling me something I don’t want to hear but I have to listen to,” Caroline. —Afterward
by Jennifer Mathieu
Ethan was kidnapped four years ago. But when his captor, Marty, brings home a new eleven-year-old boy named Dylan, the police break down Marty’s apartment door shortly after. Now, Marty is dead, and both boys are able to reunite with their families. Ethan’s parents are overwhelmed with relief at having found their only child alive after all this time. While very glad to be home, Ethan himself struggles to readjust after having lost four years of his life to captivity and trauma.
Afterwards switches back and forth between the perspective of Ethan and Dylan’s older sister, Caroline, who feels like she is the only one in her family willing to acknowledge what happened to her brother. Caroline observes, “It’s like my mom wants to act like everything is going to be okay if she just says it over and over enough.” To complicate matters, Dylan is nonverbal autistic, and since the family can’t afford therapy, they can’t understand his trauma. While her parents are attempting to sweep the whole incident under the rug, Caroline knows her brother is suffering and still needs to heal.
After several months, when the media’s cameras have faded away and the rest of the world has moved on, Caroline decides that there is only one person who can give her the information she needs to help Dylan—and herself—deal with the kidnapping. Slowly, a powerful friendship begins to form between the two teenagers who are suffering because of the pain inflicted by the same man.
Since each chapter of Afterward alternates between both Ethan’s and Caroline’s perspectives the reader is able to better understand their interactions with each other. Readers will sympathize with Ethan as he describes the difficulty of returning to a normal life. He thinks, “I think I probably can’t be fixed at all.” The reader feels the heartache of his struggle and can easily root for him to overcome his trauma. Caroline is a bit more difficult to like. She is rather reckless, and at one point reignites Ethan’s trauma in an act of selfishness. However, Caroline’s more nurturing and considerate side is showcased in her relationship with her brother.
Ethan’s therapist, Dr. Greenberg is a lovely addition to the story as he is professional but personable and he’s the light that guides Ethan along the road to recovery. However, Dylan gets a bit lost in the narrative. Because he disconnects from the world, readers will find it difficult to connect with him. The story becomes more about Ethan and Caroline’s friendship than helping Dylan through the trauma he suffered. The closest the story gets to suggesting Dylan gets the help he needs is Caroline telling her mother that he needs therapy, and the reader can only hope they will find a way to afford it.
Afterward ends with some uncertainty about where the characters will go next. Nonetheless, Afterward is a difficult but heartfelt read that shows that recovering from trauma is possible. The story doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but it does handle them in a way that is respectful and manageable for a teen reader. Afterward would be a good read for older teens who are looking for a serious and mature story. Readers who want to explore another book that revolves around a kidnapping should read Pretend She’s Here by Luanne Rice.
- Caroline and Jason work together. Caroline describes kissing and “messing around” with Jason during breaks and after work. During one of their encounters, she describes him as delivering “these tiny, goosebump-inducing kisses and nibbles all over [my neck] that make my hair follicles go electric.” Then he pulls her to the ground and it is strongly implied that they have sex.
- During work, Jason texts Caroline suggesting they hide behind one of the hay bales and “get nekkid.”
- While musing over her blossoming friendship with Ethan, Caroline reveals that she has never been able to be just friends with a guy. Before Jason, Caroline “messed around” with three other boys.
- Before he was kidnapped, Ethan was heading to his friend’s house. He was wondering if he could stay overnight and he became excited at the prospect of using Jesse’s binoculars to spy on his babysitter. He hopes that she’ll “take off her shirt and everything.”
- While at a party, Caroline describes seeing two people “groping each other like two eighth graders under the bleachers.”
- While intoxicated, Caroline takes off her shirt and tells Ethan to kiss her. He does; Ethan describes “getting hard” as they grope each other. He says, “her tongue is in my mouth, and she’s putting her hands on my shoulders and back.”
- Kissing Caroline triggers memories of Ethan’s sexual trauma from his captivity. He remembers, “Hands on me. Rough hands. Big hands. Not stopping. Not when I pleaded for them to stop and then gave up when the pleading only made it worse.”
- Dylan was likely sexually abused during his captivity, but it is not described. Caroline is disturbed when imagining “Dylan being touched or hurt.”
- Ethan talks to his therapist about his abduction. Ethan says, “‘When I was with him, sometimes my body responded then, too. Even though I hated what was happening.’” He questions whether this means some part of him wanted the sexual acts.
- When Caroline’s mother tells her that her father is having an affair, she says, “Your father is having sex with someone else.”
- In an article detailing the boys’ reappearance, Ethan and Dylan’s captor, Marty, is described as dying of “a self-inflicted gunshot when authorities attempted to arrest him at his workplace.”
- Ethan and Dr. Greenberg talk about the protesting of nukes in the eighties. Ethan thinks to himself, “People don’t talk about countries firing nuclear weapons much anymore. It’s just terrorists blowing shit up or people shooting up schools that freaks everybody out.”
- Both Ethan’s and Dylan’s roadside kidnappings get described in detail and each description is about two pages in length. Both boys are held at gunpoint. Ethan recalls his captor telling “me to get down. Get on the floor, this is a gun on your neck.” Ethan describes, “The [gun’s] metal feels heavy on me. Heavier than the guy’s hand.” The weapon is never fired, and no physical injuries are noted.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Ethan takes prescribed medications to ease his anxiety and help him sleep. At one point, he reveals he is taking four different prescriptions.
- When they are together, Caroline and Jason often smoke weed and drink heavily spiked sodas. Caroline muses that Jason “only gets sweet and gentle when he’s high.”
- Ethan recalls smoking weed at fifteen and possibly even younger.
- While at a friend’s house, Caroline drinks Shiners from the fridge.
- While her father is in the kitchen, Caroline takes a beer from the refrigerator “just to see if he’ll notice,” which he does not. She drinks half of it in her room and pours the rest out.
- Caroline offer’s Ethan a swig of heavily spiked Diet Coke. This leads to the sexual encounter mentioned above.
- Occasionally, adults are described as drinking beer.
- Dylan often repeats the phrase, “Damn, piece of cake.”
- Occasionally, Ethan or Caroline will use the words hell, ass and fuck.
- Shit and bullshit are said multiple times.
- After Dylan’s return, Caroline prays to God, though she is uncertain if she believes in him. She thanks God for bringing her brother home.
- Near the end of the story, she again thanks God, even though she is pretty sure she doesn’t believe in him.
- Ethan and Dr. Greenberg discuss why people do and don’t believe in God. Dr. Greenberg mentions that he is Jewish, but doesn’t elaborate on his beliefs. They briefly discuss atheism and Unitarian Universalism, a religion that lacks a set of beliefs and “supports the idea of everyone being on their own faith journey.”
- Ethan thinks back to the idea he had of God before his abduction and how he began to resent God for not answering his prayers for help in captivity.
- During one of his sessions with Ethan, Dr. Greenberg refers to the novel, Cat’s Cradle. He explains the story’s fictitious religion that involves a belief that people are cosmetically linked in ‘karasses,’ or teams, to do a section of God’s will. Ethan thinks of being connected to Caroline and Dylan in this sense and wonders why fate would link them in such a terrible way.
by Erin Cosgrove