Published by Random House Books for Young Readers on January 21, 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 327 •Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Muiriel is close to aging out of foster care, where she has kept her freedom intact nearly all her life by carrying with her only the things she needs through twenty placements, and always moving, never staying still long enough to be caught in the trap of adoption. One more year, all she has to do is keep her unblemished record of 'perfect' behavior intact until her eighteenth birthday and she'll be free. But this last placement isn't like the others she's navigated. It's on an island, for one thing, away from the city she's lived in all her life. And the people she meets here don't tell her how to feel, that she should be 'grateful'. They don't tell her she is 'damaged'. Muiriel has always lived her life guided by the words of John Muir, who taught her that true freedom is secured by always moving. But in the stillness of one place where she may have found a best friend, an adult who truly listens to her, and a boy who seems to be falling for her. Muiriel is carrying the unfamiliar weight of attachments that make her nervous, and she isn't certain she can make it alone anymore. But can she find a way to secure her freedom without living a life alone?
You know how every so often you pick up a YA book that is so quiet, yet so excellently crafted, it just really speaks to you? That’s how I felt about What I Carry, a contemporary YA novel that follows Muir, a seventeen year old girl who’s been in the foster care system her entire life. I can’t remember how I initially heard about the novel, but I remember it sticking on my radar after seeing it compared to Far From the Tree, another well written YA novel that tackles foster care/adoption topics in YA. I then saw it was blurbed by Deb Caletti who wrote one of my favorite YA contemporaries of all time, and I was thrilled to find What I Carry resonated with me in a similar way while still being a unique story in its own right.
As mentioned previously, What I Carry follows the story of Muir, a teenager in foster care who despite cultivating the “perfect file” for a foster child (no behavioral issues, great grades, has never missed a day of school, etc) she has bounced around to 20 homes throughout her short life. When she’s finally just one year away from aging out of the system, she finds herself staying with a single woman on a small island off the coast of Seattle. Thinking this is just another temporary placement, Muir goes into the situation with her guard raised but slowly starts to break her own rules, from making ride or die friends, to falling in love and standing up to bullies. She starts to learn that maybe she doesn’t in fact have to focus solely on survival 100% of the time.
Muir’s story was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. From learning about her being abandoned at a hospital the moment she was born to the botched adoption attempts she suffered throughout her childhood, Muir’s story is one of resilience and maturity beyond her seventeen years. It also provides an understandable foundation for her habits, from describing “what she carries” (a nod to the title) in her 1 suitcase (never owning anything that can’t fit in it) to her careful emotional distancing of everyone in her orbit. When she settles in on the island and finds people who manage to sneak through her barriers, such as her friend Kira or love interest Sean, it makes it so rewarding because it happens slowly, gradually, and not without resistance from Muir. It’s tragic and believable and just the right amount of hopeful.
While I haven’t read too many books that focus on the the institution of the US foster care system, I do appreciate that this one approached foster care from a different angle than the typical, problematic stereotype of it being full of horrors and being full of broken, maladjusted kids. Muir herself even references that it’s possible to have an OK (if not great) life in the system, and throughout the novel she gives little tidbits of previous foster homes she was in that range from straight up weird to safe and comfortable. She also has a social worker to works hard to advocate for her and who has been the one constant her entire life, and it was refreshing to see many different types of adults portrayed, from those who were indifferent to Muir to ones who actually wanted to help her. Muir also has a wonderful ally in Francine, her foster mother she’s placed with on the island who’s battling her own loneliness in life, and who was the perfect mix of compassionate and loving but not afraid to be stern or strict and place boundaries on Muir when needed. I don’t want to spoil the ending of the story, but it’s a well balanced portrayal and offers an alternative perspective into to the world of foster care, while not devaluing the not great experiences of foster care as well.
Well written characters and plot aside, Longo creates a vivid setting in this story that had me yearning to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest (and I am not a backpacking kind of gal). Muir is obsessed with her namesake, naturalist John Muir, and through her studying of his works over the years has become passionate about nature and the environment. Muir finds an internship leading student groups through a national park and explores many of the beautiful, natural environments of the Pacific Northwest, which is honestly a setting I wish was present in more stories, it’s so lush and beautiful. I learned a lot about John Muir and his writings and contributions to the American National Parks system, so bonus points for a story that educated me on top of entertaining me!
Overall: If you’re looking for a story that’s full of found family, the beauty of nature, and a look at human bonds and attachments, I cannot recommend What I Carry enough! It could very well end up being my favorite contemporary of the year!