One of my comfort-media habits is rereading my favorite children's and young adult novels— many of which I've never heard anyone else mention. "Did You Read This, Too?" is my attempt to celebrate these personal classics and see if anyone else shares my love.
A lot of my favorite pop culture about teens and preteens is set among characters who are around 11 and 12 — old enough to be sensitive and articulate and have complicated relationships, but too young to be more than curious about sex and dating, or to do much cool-kid posturing. That's something I appreciate about Stand By Me, for example. Nancy Hope Wilson's Bringing Nettie Back focuses on a friendship between girls in sixth grade, and one of the things I love about this complex, bittersweet story is that it's just as much about navigating relationships with family as it is about friends.
Eleven-year-old Clara is at an awkward moment, caught in the middle of six children — in their familial slang, she's not quite a Big Kid, but too old to be a Little Kid. She's not fully ready to grow up, and feels pressure from her stern father to be more serious and responsible. She's only really at home on her grandmother Oggie's farm, where her family spends each summer, but she can't get any friends from school to join her there for a week's visit.
Clara takes a gamble and invites two girls she doesn't know well to the farm: her quiet classmate Patty Knapp and Patty's twin sister, Nettie. When they arrive, Clara immediately hits it off with inventive, charismatic Nettie; they become best friends, with Patty as the unassuming third wheel. Back in their grim suburban hometown, the three girls continue to spend every available moment together — until Nettie suffers a brain aneurysm.
During the cold, gray time while Nettie is in a coma and away in the hospital, Clara has to confront the real possibility that her friend might die. But when Nettie regains consciousness and comes home to slowly relearn how to eat, talk, and walk, Clara faces a new kind of loss: Nettie is there, but she's unavoidably different. She can't draw anymore as she once loved to do; she doesn't sparkle with the mischievous charm that drew Clara to her in the first place.
What makes Bringing Nettie Back feel painfully true and lived-in is that Clara's struggle to accept this new Nettie isn't just about the friendship between the two girls. Though Patty never seems envious of or excluded by her sister's connection with Clara, she's hurt by the ways Clara pushes her to the side in her determination to bring back the old Nettie. She's not alone — late in the book, Clara is chagrined to spend time with her family and hear her siblings happily exclaim that "she's back!" She realizes how often she's disregarded them, especially the baby sister who worships her.
Clara's love for her family is fraught in ways that go beyond the situation with Nettie, too. It's hinted from early on that they don't have much extra money; when Clara starts spending time at Nettie and Patty's house, the class differences between the families are made clear. (A bit that rang especially true for me: "Nettie helped clean up after supper — or rather, after dinner. The Knapps called it dinner.") Clara starts chafing at her family's noisy, messy, unrefined ways, and at the fact that her dad is quick to anger and arguments. More climactic than any moment with Nettie is the scene in which Clara finally explodes at her father, and is offered an unexpected reassurance of his love.
The love parents have for their kids shines through fiercely in the last half of the book, as we follow Clara maturing and learning to live with change and ambiguity and the cruelty of life. When the twins' mother vetoes a trip to the farm for the still-mostly-bedridden Nettie, Clara complains to her own mom. Her mother admonishes her that all of the words Nettie has learned since her coma, all of the walking and feeding herself and going to the bathroom she's been able to do, are because of the "tedious, painstaking, loving work" of Mrs. Knapp. Clara's mom also explains, with deep emotion of her own, how hard it would be for a parent to be apart from a child who had come so close to death.
As Clara slowly accepts her new relationship with Nettie while mourning the old Nettie, the final pages of the book pulse with joy and sadness. Rereading it now, I found myself crying several times: when a newly recovering Nettie asks for Clara by her nickname "Raz"; when Clara finds one of Nettie's old drawings, portraying Clara as "beautiful and lucky"; when Clara asks her father for the first time about his experiences in the war. The book ends with nothing perfect, nothing fixed forever, but with Clara reaching a new understanding of herself and a new empathy for the people closest to her. These are lessons I'm still learning now, and Bringing Nettie Back's sweet sadness is worth revisiting time after time.