Also by this author: When We Collided, The Start of Me and You, The Map from Here to There
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on May 16th 2017
Pages: 400 •Goodreads
Lucy Hansson was ready for a perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters—in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope. When her boyfriend “pauses” their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp—one for troubled kids—Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Attempting to accept a new normal, Lucy slowly regains footing among her vibrant, diverse coworkers, Sundays with her mom, and a crush on a fellow counselor. But when long-hidden family secrets emerge, can Lucy set aside her problems and discover what grace really means?
*Many thanks to Lauren @ Bookmark Lit for being a rock star and letting me borrow her copy!
In some ways I don’t even know how to begin reviewing this book because my heart is so full after reading it. The Names They Gave Us has a tiny sprinkling of every ingredient you need for a powerful and moving YA book, but the product is so cohesive and beautiful and seamless that it’s almost impossible to analyze each individual component. However, I am a book blogger and this is my book blog, so review I must (and I really want to impress upon you how direly you need this book in your life).
From the synopsis, it’s clear that this book will incorporate elements of religion. One of my majors in college was Religious Studies (studying the cultural, sociological, anthropological, etc. elements of religion) so I’m always very interested when I hear a YA book is going to incorporate organized faith into it’s story line. I was so very pleased to find that while religion plays a central role in the main protagonist Lucy’s life, it doesn’t overshadow or overwhelm the plot. While Lucy is the daughter of a pastor and has attended Bible Camp almost every summer, her relationship with her faith is like any other relationship one has at age seventeen: full of ups and downs, frustrating, exhilarating, and prone to changing in major ways during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Lucy is able to call herself a Christian character without forcing her beliefs on the reader, and manages to critically question her own ideas of what faith is and how it manifests, and still retain a relationship with her religion without adhering to every strict scripture. I think this is such an important message this day in age, as religion is often seen as such a divisive and polarizing force. You can be a Christian and still be angry with God, push boundaries, want to grow beyond the parameters that your church offers you, and that’s exactly what Lucy does. Emery manages to craft a message that proves religion doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with your personality types or personal beliefs.
I also love that Emery took a very balanced approach to her portrayal of contemporary Christianity, nodding at both its flaws and positive attributes. Lucy’s parents represent the healing, accepting side of it in their unwavering support of their daughter and her friends and in never turning away someone in need, regardless of their faith or choices. However, the more regressive and sexist side of it is portrayed and acknowledged early on too, especially in an instance when a character is judging a female for her physical actions and desires. The Names They Gave Us is a book that forces its protagonist to critically engage and question their faith, and does so with a skilled and sensitive hand.
The Names They Gave Us contains a romance but is not consumed by it. Rather, the romance often carries equal weight with the familial and friendship types of love that are developed throughout the story. Lucy draws strength from her relationship with her parents, who have always been a solid support system and whom she can’t imagine living without and represent an everlasting and unconditional love (even if she does feel compelled to occasionally hide things from them, like that fact that she’s a beauty vlogger…a fun, tiny side element to the story that I LOVE, because I am a sucker for online makeup tutorials). Lucy also builds deep bonds with the friends she meets at camp as well as with her campers, and the maternal pull she feels toward them is intense and consuming and as genuine as if they were her own family, whether she’s saving one from an allergic reaction or helping another finally find the courage to dunk her head underwater and learn to swim. This story is generous and authentic with the types of love and the strength of relationships that it develops, and revels in the small triumphs of everyday love.
The Names They Gave Us also introduces readers to a really fascinating setting that is teeming with diversity. Upon the insistence of her mother, Lucy skips Bible Camp and attends Daybreak, a camp for those who have encountered traumas in their past. While there was definitely a diverse portrayal of race, religion, and gender in the campers, it went beyond the obvious to portray a great diversity in the mental health and emotional well-being of all of the individuals there. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting for the reveal of a characters past trauma that sent them to Daybreak, whether it be a death or a loss or a struggle with mental illness. Lucy was unfamiliar with many of these struggles and served as a vehicle to learn to navigate others’ identities in a respectful manner while still stumbling and learning and not always knowing what to say or how to behave. While at times it was hard to watch Lucy inadvertently say something insensitive or react to a situation in a way that hurt someone else unintentionally, I loved the realism of Lucy having to learn about situations and circumstances that were new to her and not always knowing the right thing to say or do because she’s human and still prone to making mistakes.
What makes The Names They Gave Us stand out to me as a reader is not the just the creative setting, highly developed relationships or wonderful writing. Rather, it’s the overarching theme of growth that pervades almost every plot point of this story. Lucy has to grow in her faith and decide how to incorporate it into her drastically changing life. She has to grow into her new role as an adult child and be faced with the prospect of potentially outliving her mother. She has to grow past her initial, conservative judgements and values in order to help her campers and be an effective counselor. She is constantly bombarded throughout the novel with challenges that she has to grow and rise up to meet, and she handles each hurdle with such earnest and honest grace.
Overall: The Names They Gave Us is a book that’s honest, introspective, and full of growth and grace. It takes all of the quintessential elements of being seventeen and raises the stakes, looking at them with more depth than most books in the Young Adult genre. It’s the ultimate example of a quietly powerful book, that portrays beauty in the ordinary and strength in everyday actions. It’s a book that leaves you with a million questions but with a satisfied heart knowing that Lucy has grown enough to handle whatever may come her way. This is Emery Lord at her absolute best.