Bryan Bliss’s sobering and daring new young adult novel, We’ll Fly Away, begins and ends with the first-person musings of a teenage boy on death row. Luke is writing letters to his best friend, Toby—a practice encouraged by the compassionate nun overseeing his care. With each prison missive, the reader learns a little more about the history between these two troubled boys. The narrative structure alternates between the letters and a third-person account of the events that led to the calamitous present.
Both Luke and Toby have spent their lives grappling with a single parent who failed them daily in painful and dangerous ways. Toby’s father is an abusive alcoholic who ruthlessly beats him. Luke’s mother routinely neglects her three children, which places Luke in the burdensome role of caregiver to his younger brothers.
Luke and Toby have very different temperaments and talents, but for years they have been bonded by their shared longing for freedom from these crushing family realities. They spend hours in the forest, in an abandoned plane, yearning and planning for life after graduation, when they can leave North Carolina for Idaho. However, the end of their senior year is complicated by romantic relationships that test their loyalty and by new risks for violence and other harm.
Bliss treats his protagonists’ stories with tough-hearted mercy. He recognizes the unjust external forces at work in their young lives—the deplorability of children being mistreated by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them. He also perceptively charts the connection between Toby and Luke’s choices and their tragic consequences.
We’ll Fly Away serves as more than a story about abuse or friendship or even death row; instead it is a journey into the very questions of how our personal actions and public systems can grievously deny human dignity. It is an intense young adult novel that will likely unsettle readers, but a literary work that so powerfully calls for a more redemptive way forward for all people is surely worth any heaviness of heart. Recommended for ages 14 and up. (Banner review)