Today’s Book: “The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester” by Maya MacGregor
The Plot: Sam, a nonbinary autistic teenager, moves to a new school in a more accepting city after an incident of queerphobic violence that almost killed them. They soon become haunted by the ghost of another teenager who may have been murdered, in their new home, a generation ago – and by a mysterious stalker who seems intent on stopping Sam from digging up the past.
Autistic Character(s): Sam, and the author!
I have a complicated relationship with the word “likable.” There’s a whole brand of discourse about whether characters should be likable, and likable to whom, and what that even means. But when I try to sum up this book and its protagonist, “likable” is the first word that comes to mind – and it’s not ironic, but very sincere. There’s a warmth and an irrepressible sweetness to this book despite its dark subject matter, or maybe, in a roundabout way, because.
Sam is an adorable autistic seventeen-year-old with a big heart, good fashion sense, and amazing hair, who lives with their adoptive father, Junius – more on him in a sec. But as you can see from the plot summary, Sam has a lot of trauma. One of the ways that they cope is through a special interest in dead queer teenagers – those who might have been murderered, or might have otherwise had their lives cut short before they could become the adults they were meant to be. Sam has a whole scrapbook where they keep details from news and the Internet about each of these people, documenting and memorializing each short life as best they can.
By sheer coincidence, this is the second book I read in a row that portrayed an autistic character with a dark or morbid special interest. (I haven’t reviewed the other one yet; I’m finding it unusually difficult to put my thoughts together about that one.) It’s easy for neurotypical people to be put off by these kinds of interests or to characterize them as unhealthy. MacGregor’s approach to the topic is a lot wiser and kinder. Sam is mindful of the way most people would react to their interest, and of its potential pitfalls – the danger of becoming disrespectful, for instance, or invading families’ privacy. But it’s also made very very clear through the narrative that this interest is something Sam needs, a way of processing not only what they’ve been through but how their own trauma connects to a broader history. Plus, it’s what helps them solve the mystery and save the day.
Secretly, like many trauma survivors, Sam doesn’t feel that they’re really alive. Before long, they’re going to turn nineteen, and they have a strong feeling that they’re not going to survive past that birthday. Fate, or awful happenstance, will somehow intervene.
All this trauma is offset by the fact that Sam’s support network is genuinely warm and wonderful. To begin with, there is Junius, the best and coolest adoptive dad I’ve ever seen in a story. He is also a Black single parent – although Sam is white. MacGregor doesn’t shy away from showing how frustrated Junius gets with the racism he encounters, but also the resilience with which he seeks out situations where he and Sam can thrive. Junius is steady, supportive, and playful with Sam in ways that fully take Sam’s needs as an autistic young person into account. Check out this quote, for instance:
“Come on,” he says. “We’re gonna unload the car. And then we’re going to set up our egg crates and sleeping bags, and then we are going to go for a walk to see . . .” He pauses to stare at me melodramatically. “The ocean.”
I can’t help the small bounce I do. Dad is good at this. Giving me direction, expectations. Especially because tomorrow will be stressy, and even he can’t tell me how it’ll go.
Dad notices the bounce and grins wider. He has learned to tune himself to my frequency.
The community Sam finds at their new school is also good like this. It’s not perfect – there is some bullying and other instances of garden variety high school drama, and MacGregor takes those episodes seriously. But for the most part, as soon as Sam joins Rainbow Island – a student group for LGBTQ+ and allies – they are immediately welcomed by a new friend group full of queer teenagers who are just as adorable, quirky and sweet as they are themself.
The sheer warmth and love in this story provides an effective counterweight to the heaviness of the violence it’s processing. This is a book that doesn’t bowlderize the aftermath of murderous, queerphobic violence – or the effects of stalking and death threats in the present. But it’s a book that holds and supports you while it shows you those things. At heart, it’s an affirming book, and it refuses to leave Sam in the darkness alone.
In case there was any doubt, they do turn nineteen – and they do survive.
The Verdict: Recommended-1