What happens when we die is fertile ground for fiction. Generally reserved for adult protagonists (“Lovely Bones” excluded), what death holds in store for children and teens could be all lollipops, Toys ‘R Us and video games. Neal Shusterman, however, has chosen to engage fairy tale like characters (a wicked witch, a monster pirate, a chocolate ogre and an outcast) in a political and moral debate about the afterlife. Is it better to go into the light and get to where you are going or remain in limbo? Who, if anyone, gets to make that decision?
The purgatory of Everlost exists in tandem with the living world but, for the most part, cannot be touched by the dead. The first book of the Skinjacker Trilogy,”Everlost”, introduces Nick and Allie who are killed when their parents’ cars collide. As they both are tossed through the tunnel of death toward the proverbial light, they bump into one another and effectively block themselves from wherever it is they are supposed to be going and land, instead, in Everlost. After sleeping for nine months, they awaken in the woods next to their crash site and encounter a fellow lost soul who explains the rules of their new world and their new lives as Afterlights.
Shusterman lays out an Oz like world where people and beloved or significant places cross over to Everlost. The places that cross over are “dead spots” that appear more vividly to the dead and where the children can walk freely. The colorless part of their world is the living world, where the ground is a slow quicksand threatening to swallow them to the center of the earth if they don’t move quickly enough. Driven by a need to see if their families have survived the crash, Nick and Allie begin a quest across Everlost to find their homes. Blocked at every turn by a power-hungry girl who has set up court in the Everlost version of the Twin Towers and a horrifying deformed monster commanding his own pirate ship of misfits, the two learn that they aren’t in Kansas, or in this case, New Jersey, anymore.
“Everwild”, the second in the trilogy, begins to explore the idea of memories initiated a bit in the first book. As more time passes, the children begin to forget about their living selves and their physical appearance morphs into how they see themselves now. The struggle between assimilating into the Everlost world and hanging on to the people they were pits the “Sky Witch” Mary against Nick, the chocolate ogre. Mary rules over her Twin Towers, filling them with children who have been convinced there is no alternative to the limbo they are in. Nick’s memories are blurring with his present so that the boy who died with a smudge of chocolate on his face slowly becomes consumed by it. Allie’s attempt to go home is thwarted by the McGill, a monster pirate, whose boiling anger at the world has deformed his outward appearance. Throw in the scout of a Mayan afterlife King and discover the world of skinjackers, Afterlights who have the ability to possess living bodies, and the fairy tale world gains scope and depth.
The conclusion, “Everfound”, is the final battle between those who have firmly entrenched themselves in purgatory and are desperate to keep anyone from seeking escape through the light, and those who are trying to make sure that everyone “gets where they’re going.” It is a race to stop Mary’s camp from continuing to do the unthinkable–harvesting the living and eventually destroying the living world.
Told through third person narrative, the stories are embellished with excerpts from books and pamphlets written by two of the main characters. These little gems of propaganda are some of the best parts of the trilogy.
The series is just as much a metaphor for the insecurities of burgeoning adulthood as it is an exploration of life after death. The girl who had little control over her real life, now has power over hundreds of children and is not willing to let that go. The boy who dies with chocolate on his face is forced to carry the embarrassing mark that threatens to take him over completely, turning him into a Chocolate Ogre.
Part Oz, part Neverland, Everlost is a magical place to visit. Shusterman is a fantastic writer and I’m not sure that this review is doing him justice. My review mojo is winding down now. How is it that some of you people did double Cannonballs? Really. Don’t any of you watch TV?