[Book Review] The Barn by Avi

The schoolmaster says nine-year-old Benjamin is the finest student he's ever seen-fit for more than farming; destined for great things someday But his father's grave illness brings Ben home,from school and compels him to strive forsomething great right now -- to do the one thing that will please Father so much he'll want to live. But first Ben must convince his older sister andbrother to work with him. And together, they succeed in ways they never dreamed possible.

Avi's The Barn is an incredibly straightforward (and short) story about coping with an impending loss. In the story, the main character is pulled from his boarding school after his father suffers a "fit" (i.e., a stroke or something similar) that leaves him incapable of almost any movement or communication. The plot is exceptionally simple: Ben, the main character, wants his father to live, and so he mires his way through the bargaining stage of grief by assuming himself that if he and his siblings can just build the barn his father wanted, then surely his father will live.

But because that's not how mortality actually works, Ben's father eventually dies, making this a story not only about the grief of caring for a dying loved one but also of the sad and inevitable end of hospice care. I think I rather like that it's never clear whether or not Ben's father is really communicating with his children as best he can, or whether it's truly wishful thinking on Ben's part. That uncertainty ties in well with the overall theme and emotional work of the story.
What I didn't like, unfortunately, was Ben himself. Not that I can really point to anything that should've been done differently; Ben was written exactly as Ben had to have been written in order for the story to communicate what Avi intended it to communicate... But goddamn did that make it kind of a slog to get through. While I would have considerable sympathy for an actual child in Ben's position, reading about Ben's stubborn desperation--and possible delusions, if we're being honest--was deeply aggravating even with the complete justification of his grief, confusion, and tumult of emotions.

I think, in the end, this book just wasn't for me. It was all very expertly done, but nothing it did was anything I particularly enjoyed. If you're looking for a story about a child dealing with a terminally ill parent, this one is exactly what you would expect it to be--and, quite probably, exactly what you need it to be. Just remember that children reading this book will likely need some emotional support to help cope with the events of the story, regardless of whether or not they are personally dealing with anything similar losses in their own lives; this truly is a story about hardship and grief and mourning, and while I'm sure this can be a great starting point for teaching kids how to handle those kinds of serious emotions, they're definitely going to need some extra help with the process.

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