Changing realities in Jacqueline Woodson’s ‘Before the Ever After’

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 5:25pm

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In acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson’s latest release, “Before the Ever After,” 12-year-old ZJ contemplates his new reality with a heart-breaking story told in verse. ZJ’s father, a famous pro football player, has been everyone’s hero for as long as ZJ can remember, yet when his father suddenly starts dealing with a serious head injury, the world ZJ has always known comes to an end. 

Woodson’s powerful verse highlights the pain and uncertainty that accompanies ill health and its effects on loved ones. As ZJ witnesses his father transform from his “before” state — a devoted, tender and humorous man who deeply loves his family —  to a man riddled with disease, ZJ quietly reflects on memories with his father and considers their unwritten future. He wonders whether his father will return to his old self or if he should accept the new normal of the unpresent, forgetful and sometimes violent figure his father has become. In the middle of questioning everything, ZJ reminds himself of the one thing he knows: “he’s my dad, which means / he’s my every single thing.” His story is a wrenching tale of the unknown and the pain of change. 

As ZJ describes his father’s shaking hands, diminishing memory and sudden outbursts, he struggles alongside his mother with the lack of answers doctors can provide. Set in the ’90s, the injury ZJ’s father is fighting is unnamed. It wasn’t until 2002 that Dr. Bennet Omalu connected these aggressive symptoms to the same brain disease affecting boxers — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head traumas. 

For many reasons, “Before the Ever After” reflected several of the themes people have been experiencing throughout the pandemic: confusion, isolation and an overwhelming sense of grief from the innumerous losses and sweeping changes these past months have brought. ZJ battles his own crippling sense of loss as his father loses his memory and even forgets his son’s name. ZJ longs for the day when his father will be himself again. He dreams of the morning when life will restore to its original vivacity; he attempts to visualize when his world will be right again. 

One of the purest inclusions of ZJ’s journey is his friendship with his “Fantastic Four” group: Ollie, Darry and Daniel are three other boys who bring safety and support to ZJ, never hesitating to candidly express the invincibility of their friendship: “It feels right / and clear / and always.” Woodson’s use of verse gives the story of their friendship a beautiful sense of fluidity and balance, and helps to solidify the relationship between them. Their friendship is braided in the pages of ZJ’s turmoil, and demonstrates how even in bad times, true friendship will prevail. 

Again, we see the reflection of the ongoing pandemic: Though the situation is not an exact mirror of ZJ’s story, there is a link between the feeling of isolation and disconnection from the world around you. ZJ is fortunate to have his true friends distract him from his pain, something we all deserve in such unprecedented times. 

While the wholesomeness of the boys’ relationship helps guide us through the foreboding, Woodson employs music as another avenue to explore the more personal adversity ZJ faces. The use of music gives “Before the Ever After” an added sense of rhythm that is elevated by Woodson’s verse. ZJ includes some songs he and his father used to sing, and others that the two wrote together. One song ZJ writes he leaves unfinished: “I look up at all those trees, Daddy, / and it takes me back to the time. / I said when I look up at all those trees, Daddy, / it sure takes me back to a time … ” The incomplete ending accentuates the unknown awaiting ZJ, and ties the motifs of time and song to deepen the sense of uncertainty. 

Woodson uses other themes to thread the story together, like trees and memory. In moments where Woodson ties two threads together, I find her writing to truly shine. In a quick, almost unexpected, inclusion titled “Bird,” ZJ spots a red cardinal in the oak tree in his front yard: “Then the bird blinked once, spread its wings, / flew away. / As though it was saying ZJ, remember this. / As though it was saying Remember me.” It was a short entry, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It is almost as if Woodson knew we all needed to be reminded of someone who loves us — someone we need to remember. 

Woodson’s verse is profound and unfailing. The emotions and sentiments of ZJ bring alive his story while also shedding light on a disease not often included in middle-grade books. “Before the Ever After” is a story about so many things — loss, friendship, time and inevitable change — that happen in our lives that we have no control over. Woodson’s latest book sparks reflection on these ideas, and provides the opportunity for discussion of our own ever changing realities.

Daily Arts Writer Lillian Pearce can be reached at pearcel@michigandaily.com.