Alison McGhee and the power of community

"Falling Boy"
"Falling Boy," the newest novel by Minnesota author Alison McGhee.
Image courtesy of Picador

Alison McGhee's new novel, "Falling Boy," began one night with the flash of a single image: A teenage boy, hunched over in his wheelchair, his dark gaze challenging her to write his story.

Challenging, because McGhee knew that the voice of what would become the main character, Joseph -- recently paralyzed, withdrawn and lonely -- had to sound genuine.

Alison McGhee
Author Alison McGhee.
Photo by Stormy Greener

That, says author Pete Hautmann, is no walk in the park. Hautman won a National Book Award last year for his portrayal of teen angst, and he says fiction about kids demands special nuance.

"I'll write a character as accurate and true to a person I've actually met and observed as I can, and people will see it on the page and they'll say, 'That's just too cartoonish and exaggerated,'" says Hautmann.

Yet McGhee uses simple detail and spare writing to draw the reader into Joseph's anguish, which he refuses to share even with his new circle of friends -- as illustrated in this excerpt.

"No. Joseph would not talk. He would hold everything swarming inside him about his mother.

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"No one in this new world would know anything about her, how every day they played Scrabble together, how she wore three tiny earrings in the shape of lipsticks on one ear, and three tiny earrings in the shape of mouths on the other.

"How her dark winter coat had been a gift from Big one Christmas, and she loved it because the sleeves were long enough and the fake fur around the collar and cuffs kept her warm. How the coat had come with two large brown buttons in a tiny plastic bag hidden in the pocket, and his mother had held up the buttons and said, 'Two, not one. That's class.'"

"I could tell immediately within a couple of pages that it's Alison's writing," says Brad Zellar, literary critic and senior editor at the Rake magazine.

"And that's true of everything she's written -- her adult and young adult [books]," says Zellar. "She's very good at launching into the story with really strong poetic imagery, and her voices of the characters always sound like an Alison McGhee book."

So do the themes. McGhee has explored the territory of a community's power to heal before, most notably in the novel, "Was It Beautiful?" Hautman says she's tapping into something that resonates with readers.

"A big thing that fiction does for us -- no matter how adventuresome we think we are as readers -- is that it reassures us," says Hautmann. It tells us that there's order in the universe. It tells us that there's meaning behind the things that happen in life."

McGhee herself says that's what she wants to do -- to connect with readers on their ordinary lives. But she does it through a more subtle lens.

"As a writer, I am interested in that which cannot be seen defined easily, with a straight-on gaze," McGhee says when asked to describe her writing. "I'm interested in the landscape of the human heart, its shadows and valleys, as reflected in the landscape of my roots."

McGhee's earlier adult novels, "Rainlight," "Shadow Baby," and "All Rivers Flow to the Sea," won Minnesota Book Awards and other recognitions. She has also written several books for young adults, including "Snap," and picture books for young readers including " Countdown to Kindergarten," "A Very Brave Witch" and "Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth."

McGhee is an associate professor of creative writing at Metropolitan State University, where she coordinates the creative writing program. She is also on the faculty of Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.