by Rebecca Stead
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Goodbye Stranger tells two stories in one. One story is of Bridge, her two best friends, her new friend Sherm, and a photo that causes trouble. It begins in the fall and chapters rotate in perspective between Bridge’s voice and Sherm’s letters to his grandfather who has recently left his grandmother. In the letters, Sherm counts down the days until his grandfather’s birthday, which is February 14. The other story is of a mysterious, slightly older narrator, whose chapters are interspersed, occur on Valentine’s Day (so in the future of most of the rest of the story), and are written in the second person. The chapters of the mysterious narrator are a bit jarring and feel a little creepy (the only reason for my half-star deduction) as you’re trying to figure out who it is and what the story is. Ultimately, these are stories of friendship and forgiveness and being true to yourself. There are some twists leading up to the big climax on Valentine’s Day where it all comes together in a way reminiscent of Stead’s When You Reach Me (only with not quite as satisfying an ending for me).
I liked that there were multiple betrayals of friendship and they eventually resolved in a positive and healthy way. I think that Emily, Bridge’s friend who is at the center of the photo controversy, learns a powerful lesson in online privacy. She is punished by the school for her careless and dangerous actions, but more than that she is punished socially, which is honestly probably the stronger deterrent for future careless behavior. The issue is not only internet safety but also touches on body image and bullying, and the adults seem to have reasonable responses to all of these issues. (Spoiler: Em takes a selfie of herself waist-up in just a bra and sends it to a boy she likes at his request; the photo is then sent to someone else who posts it online. A similar photo of that boy in his underwear is also posted in retaliation; who does each of the postings is part of the mystery of the story so I won’t give that away!)
The other great relationship in this story is between Bridge and Sherm. As new junior high kids, the seventh-graders are required to join a club or sport. Bridge chooses tech crew, where she meets Sherm. I like that she follows Bridge own interests and doesn’t just pick soccer, like Em, or the human rights club like Tab (short for Tabitha – the third musketeer). Sherm is one of my favorite characters. We get to peek inside his life and get to know his family, especially his grandparents and how the dissolution of their relationship affects Sherm and his parents. Sherm is so unabashedly true to himself and I really wish we could be friends in real life.
The other thing about the junior high crew (Bridge, Em, Tab, and Sherm) is that they have all known each other since before Bridge’s accident. Bridge was hit by a car while roller skating when they were in third grade. Her friends help fill in her memories and start to deal with the trauma, which manifests itself mainly in nightmares. Bridge’s older brother, Jamie, is another great character who also has to break up with a friend. He and Bridge have a fantastic relationship (while also realistic in its rough spots) probably due mainly to this event bringing them closer together.
I could go on and on about this book and the rich, deep characters, their relationships with each other, and the things they learn, but really you should just read it!