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“Sometimes I look at Ellie and I think, what in the world is going on in that head? But I can’t—don’t want to change her. And she couldn’t change me even when she wants to! The point is to love all of each other, all the different parts just as they are, even the things we don’t get,” Eddie. –Breathing Underwater
by Sarah Allen
Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt.
Throughout their journey, they’ll be taking pictures and making memories, like they’re pirates hunting for treasure. Olivia will do whatever it takes to snap the picture that will make her sister smile. But what if things never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? As the two girls face these questions, all Olivia can do is love her sister, not change her—and maybe that’s enough.
Anyone who struggles with depression—whether it’s themselves or someone they know—should read Breathing Underwater. The story is told from Olivia’s perspective which puts the spotlight on her desire to help her sister. Despite Olivia’s love for her sister, Olivia often struggles with the burden of always having to watch for signs that Ruth is falling into “The Pit.” Everyone in the family is understandably concerned about Ruth’s mental state; however, this often leaves Olivia feeling as if she does not matter. The story explores the topic of mental illness through a sister relationship which allows the reader to see how Ruth’s depression affects everyone around her.
One positive message that is reinforced in the story is the idea that each person has wonderfully different “superpowers.” Olivia observes her cousin, Darcy, comforting someone, and Olivia realizes Darcy’s “superpower is making people feel relaxed.” At that point, Olivia wishes that she was more like Darcy. Olivia thinks, “I just wish my power was to have whatever power people needed, to do exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it, and I wonder if anyone has that power.” However, Olivia comes to realize that “one person’s weird is another person’s Vincent van Gogh, and where would we be without our Vincents?” When Olivia thinks about the question “where would we be without our Vincents,” she realizes that her—and Vincent van Gogh’s “superpowers”– may not be appreciated by everyone, but they still have value. In the end, Olivia becomes comfortable with herself, which allows her “superpower” to shine.
Olivia would do anything to help her sister. However, she comes to realize that she is not responsible for Ruth’s happiness. Olivia learns that no one can be in control of someone else’s happiness or unhappiness. This pivotal lesson allows Olivia to love her sister without trying to change her.
Breathing Underwater would make an excellent book to use as a discussion starter because it highlights the complexities of families and mental illness. Despite this, some readers may have a difficult time reading the entire book because much of the story focuses on Olivia’s inner monologue. Readers who would like to read more stories that explore mental illness may want to read The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim and My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Ruth takes medication for her depression. At first “it took lots of tries with different kinds of medicine and different doses before the doctors and Ruth found one that calmed the whirlpool going on in her mind.”
- Ruth occasionally calls Olivia names such as wierdo, dork, punk, and prick.
- Crap is used once.