A month or two ago, Elle Cosimano (whose books Nearly Gone and Nearly Found are some of my all-time faves) sent me an advanced copy of her newest book, Holding Smoke. It’s a book about a young man in a juvenile correctional facility who can separate from his body and travel through walls, among other things. Smoke, the main character, has been convicted of two crimes, but is only guilty of one of them – the other, though, he can’t prove his innocence of. The book follows Smoke slowly uncovering the truth about what happened and also understanding the hazy line between good and bad.
First off, the book is fantastic. It’s gritty and well-written and poignant all at the same time. You fall in love with these characters who have done horrible things, and yet, seem so normal. You question if the “good guys” are actually good, and what it means to even be “good.” You see the things young people grow up with, and no matter how different we are, there are always things that make us the same: grief, loss, and love.
This book made me think a lot about good and bad. In Cosimano’s author note at the end of the book, she talks about growing up as a warden’s daughter, and how she learned that the line (between good and bad) is hazy – just like Smoke does in the book. She talks about meeting inmates at the prisons where her father worked and see the good sides of them – the sides that don’t let you believe people can do bad things. She talked about having to learn that good people make bad choices; choices that can define the rest of their lives.
And this all made me think a lot about recent events and about life in general. It made me think about crime and loss and the criminal justice system. Holding Smoke portrays a variety of corrections officers, and the cruelty and kindness that I saw in them seemed like a reflection of the people we meet on a day-to-day basis. It made me think that there is no such thing as a “good” person in many ways. We are all filled with contradiction and bad choices. Choices we have to live with. Choices that can define us.
The recent events of violence and hatred and fear, they are all a reflection of that in many ways. Whenever there is a shooting (it sickens me to write those words because the word “whenever” means they are common) you always hear about the shooter. How the people that knew them never could’ve seen this coming. How they were kind, generous, did good things. Maybe how they were troubled. Struggling with grief. In a low point in their lives. And I think that that juxtaposition is something to remember.
That very juxtaposition is a part of our daily lives. It’s part of the news, part of what we see when we walk down the streets, part of the sirens we hear in the middle of the night, part of the people we meet and the experiences we have. That juxtaposition is part of what makes us human. Part of what makes us so beautifully and terribly human.
Even as a child, you have friends in school who suddenly, out of the blue it seems, says something hurtful. And there’s that part of us that says, that’s not them. But it is, isn’t it? The part of them that is your friend is them, but so is the cruelty they sometimes exude.
And I don’t think this juxtaposition is bad because it’s part of us. But then, events like Orlando happen. Orlando and all of the countless, horrible, heart-breaking, shooting that have happened before, and we can’t but wonder: why? What is it inside us – inside humans – that can make us do such horrible things? Is there an “On” switch that is flipped in us that turns us into killers? And we start pointing fingers in an effort to understand. To understand the complexities of the human nature.
The thing is that many times, I believe, there isn’t someone or something to blame. And that’s the hardest thing to understand. Somewhere, along the way, a good person made a bad choice. And that bad choice led to another bad choice. And that bad choice changed their life.
And as much as I want to desperately, desperately, find an answer, I don’t know if there is one. And that’s what scares me sometimes. That the line between good and bad is too blurred.
Holding Smoke was published on May 3rd from Hyperion Publishers, and can be found in bookstores. Thank you to Elle for sending me a copy of this incredible book, and I encourage you all to read it. Read it and think.