Chase Ambrose can barely remember the fall that nearly killed him. In fact, Chase can barely remember anything. All he really knows is that he woke up in a hospital with a concussion, a shoulder injury, and no memory of his family, his friends, or even himself. It’s terrifying — but it also just might turn out to be a good thing. Maybe the best thing that could have happened.
Because as Chase will slowly and uncomfortably begin to learn, if ever anyone needed a break with the past and a fresh start in life, it’s him.
Gordon Korman’s “Restart” asks an important question: Is it possible for a bad person to get a do-over? Korman doesn’t offer a lot of scientific backup for the idea of a drastic personality change after a brain injury, but if one is willing to accept the possibility, he does offer a well-crafted portrayal of how it might all play out. In the process, he makes us think about what change really means and what it requires of us.
The story is all the more effective because the Chase Ambrose we meet at the beginning seems like a nice, normal, if somewhat bewildered eighth grader. He knows — because he’s been told — that he was a football star, but he doesn’t yet understand the deep divisions between the football players and other groups in the school. And he really doesn’t understand why so many of his schoolmates act afraid of him.
But we learn along with Chase that he and many of his fellow football players — especially his two best friends, Aaron and Bear — used their star status as an excuse and a weapon to bully anyone they considered weaker or less important than themselves. In fact, the three boys had been sentenced to community service for rigging a piano to blow up in the face of a fellow student, Joel Weber, while he performed at a school assembly.
Now, although rumors about his amnesia are flying around the school, Chase’s schoolmates are having a hard time believing he could be any different. Joel’s twin sister, Shoshanna, still hates Chase enough to dump frozen yogurt on his head, and Joel’s classmate Brendan is still scared to go near him. But as Chase keeps acting like a different person, Brendan, Shoshanna, and others are shocked to find themselves reaching out to help him, and even starting to like him.
However bizarre the situation Chase finds himself in, Korman handles his inner conflict with laudable realism. Chase sometimes experiences the return of familiar old emotions: pride in his athletic prowess, satisfaction in having used his physical strength to take down a bully. And he likes those feelings. But he’s still so appalled by what he’s learning about his behavior in the old days, that he has to ask himself whether it’s worth it to feel that way again, or whether he needs to find new things to be proud of and new ways to break up a bad situation. Additionally, now that he’s spending time with other kids besides the football team, he realizes that they’re interesting and fun people with feelings to be respected, as opposed to when he thought they were just wimps to be pushed around for fun.
There are no mentions of religious faith in the story, but many of Chase’s thoughts and problems will feel familiar to Christians. He knows he doesn’t want to turn back into “old Chase,” but at the same time, he has to acknowledge that “old Chase” is still inside him and that he’s not off the hook for what he did before. And he has to tell the truth about that, even at a moment when it may cost him his new friends and the new life he’s been building for himself.
So though the story isn’t exactly one of Christian redemption, it offers a helpful, often touching picture of repentance. And from many of the other characters, we see admirable demonstrations of forgiveness.
For instance, Shoshanna gets in trouble at home when her family finds out that she’s working with Chase on a video project at school. Her mother insists at first that Chase is “unforgivable” — something that Shoshanna herself had once believed. But his changed behavior leads her to see that the unthinkable just might be possible after all. Brendan goes her one better by helping Chase cut up his food in the cafeteria when he can’t manage it with his injured arm, even before he has any reason to believe that Chase has truly changed.
“Restart” is perfectly appropriate for its middle-school audience, with no profanity (though there is some name-calling), only a little (extremely mild) romance, and no violence apart from some non-graphic descriptions of bullying. Even better, the book is well-written and full of great themes and ideas. This is a story that should appeal to young readers and their parents alike.
Image copyright Scholastic Press. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog, and the author of “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” (Baker, June 2017).
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