I was feeling rather emotional over the weekend while I read this, and … I’m not sure if this helped. There were a couple of points where I nearly or did burst into tears from what was happening. The Heartbeats of Wing Jones is an earnest, heart-warming book about a teenager trying to find herself in the face of an incredible family tragedy. The feels are real with this one, and Katherine Webber’s writing is ridiculously good. What started as a somewhat ho-hum kind of book rapidly ramped up to an intense, emotional journey. And the payoff, while not perfect, is still very good.
Wing Jones is 16 and lives in the shadow of her older brother, Marcus, star of the football team at their Atlanta high school and general darling of the community. That is, until he is at fault in a drunk driving collision that kills two people and leaves him in a coma. As Wing wrestles with what this means for her and her family, she discovers solace in a new pastime: running. When Marcus’ best friend and her secret crush, Aaron, discovers her new hobby, he persuades her to join the girls’ track team. Suddenly Wing is no longer relegated to the sideline: she has her own story. But will she run with it?
I can appreciate how some people call Wing a passive narrator, because it’s true that for much of the book she just seems to go along with things. Yet I contend that Wing changes, and she becomes less passive; this is all part of her development. When the story begins, Wing is so fixated on how she relates to Marcus that she doesn’t seem to pursue passions of her own. Everything that she tells us is in reference to Marcus: how her mother and grandmothers treat her, versus Marcus; how Aaron looks at her, versus Marcus; how she feels out of place at school, versus Marcus. (She isn’t bitter, just … focused.) Wing defines herself very much by the fact that she is not her family’s golden child, and while this means there isn’t much pressure on her, she also seems to be unsure what to do with herself.
Marcus’ collision and subsequent coma change all of that. It isn’t just the running, or the fact that Wing gradually displays athletic aptitude that should then be rewarded—it’s Wing’s new attitude. She watches her mother and grandmothers bend under the burden of bills, and she feels the need to do something. But when you’re 16? What can you do? Except … maybe just run. Run until you’re exhausted. Run until you feel better. As Wing tries to deal with her feelings—her ambivalence about the change in Marcus’ status, her attraction to Aaron, the strange, strained friendship she has with Monica—running is part escape, part hers. It’s something that defines her, that isn’t related to being Marcus’ sister or being half-black, half-Chinese. It’s just part of who she is, and that is freeing.
I like that Webber eschews or lampshades some of the more common tropes of high school teenage drama. For example, there is bullying here, but it’s low-key and continual rather than acute and melodramatic. There isn’t anything wrong with books that focus on the intense bullying that accompanies a specific event. Yet there is so much need for books like this one, books that show how constant micro-aggressions and regular aggressions can wear someone down. And then, towards the end, when Wing’s bully shares a moment of vulnerability with Wing, there is no redemptive swelling of music, no apologies. Wing herself comments on this, and I like it. I like the lack of resolution there, the idea that the bully isn’t just automatically going to be nice because Wing suddenly reached out to her: sometimes the bullies don’t go away, but you change and realize they can’t get to you any more.
If you crave resolution to every loose end, The Heartbeats of Wing Jones might leave you wanting. I won’t get into too many spoilers. But let’s just say that this is not Marcus’ story, it’s Wing’s. The book ends with a resolution to Wing’s plot, not to Marcus’. I can see how that might be frustrating to some people, how that might feel incomplete. Thematically, though, it feels right. This is a book about Wing’s transformation, and by ending it where she does, Webber shows us how one chapter of Wing’s life is finished and another is beginning. Of course her story isn’t over—but there is no way to wrap up, satisfactorily, all the plots in this book. Any such attempt at resolution would be unbelievably trite and convenient or incredibly convoluted and difficult to read. Webber can’t promise us a happily-ever-after; she can just promise us possibilities.
Now, on the romance front … as one might expect, this was not my favourite part of the story. In my opinion, Aaron is somewhat unremarkable as a love interest. He isn’t bad or anything, but he’s just there. We don’t learn much about him beyond: he’s a nice guy; he’s hoping to do track in college; he lives with his mom. Wing’s attraction to him is fairly basic, the whole “we’ve known each other most of our lives and you’re my brother’s best friend” thing. Again, nothing wrong with this type of romance story, but it doesn’t do much for me. I’m grateful that there is more drama to be found in Wing’s internal conflict than in her seeking a relationship with Aaron, because the drama that Webber does give us here isn’t much.
By far, my favourite aspect of this book was Wing’s relationship with her grandmothers, and their relationship with each other. We see this throughout the novel. At times cantankerous and even rude, Wing’s grandmothers are both prone to ordering her around and making demands. Yet they also love her and demonstrate their love in a myriad small ways. And despite their frequent arguments, they love each other: there is a dramatic, pivotal scene towards the end of the book that is just so heart-wrenching and good, but it only works because of all the other small moments between Wing’s grandmothers up until that point.
Really, I guess what I’m saying is that, with certain exceptions like Aaron’s bland characterization, I really like how Webber writes people. She manages to create conflict and conversations that feel real with a minimum of effort and exposition. Wing might not be the most proactive narrator at first, but she is sympathetic.
The Heartbeats of Wing Jones is a moving piece of historical YA. It’s … sweet. It’s a book that happens around a tragedy but isn’t really about the tragedy, except insofar as it affects the family involved. It reminded me how absurd it is that Americans don’t have universal healthcare. And it made me happy to see Wing discover herself, by placing one foot in front of the other.