Citation: Reynolds, J. (2017). Long Way Down. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Overall Review: Long Way Down is unique. Its message is an important one that the cycle of violence is real and difficult to break, but that isn’t the only thing that makes it unique. This novel in verse is targeted toward an audience who isn’t often heard in this form. It targets an audience who doesn’t typically read because they don’t feel represented or understood. It is trying to change all that and give a voice to those who need it. \
The book is broken into parts once the main character enters the elevator. Each floor is separated so that each new character’s message is distinct. Other than that, there isn’t a system of organization. Each poem is marked only with the first line, there is no table of contents, or any other distinguishing marks. There are, however, some markings on the pages to represent the smoke from the ghosts (the murkiness of the situation and the stress of it choking Will and making him short-sighted) or the elevator’s doors. No true illustrations other than these appear in the book.
Each poem has enough artistry and enough of its own theme to stand alone, even while they contribute to the story. Some parts might be lost without the context of the novel, but their message is clear enough that they would make sense. The poems are diverse in structure and symbolism, rich in meaning, and varied in emotions. They take us through Will grieving, seeing his mother broken by loss, deciding to take revenge, seeing his lost father again, seeing a girl he had feelings for, flirting, being petrified as he faced his own mortality, and being left with one big decision. The ending leaves it up to interpretation whether Will actually escaped and broke the cycle or let the loss of his brother break him, even after all the lessons the ghosts imparted. This poetic ending really captures the heart of the novel and the issue it deals with. Its interpretation is personal, the decision is a vital and impossible one for many people in Will’s position.
“It’s hard to say,
So strange to say.
But I guess
which I guess is
and even sadder.”
This is one of the few novels in verse that I’ve read where every poem felt as if it could stand alone. This poem, however, stood out to me the most. There is so much expressed in this poem from the devastation of the loss of his brother and trying to process the reality of his death to the realization that this situation is completely common.
The first thing that I noticed was the use of spacing here to illustrate how Will processes the death. The first time he says that his brother is dead, it’s separated by a line. Living Shawn on one line and the reality of his death are not connected. They can’t be. It can’t be real. Then, there’s the pause of realization. Shawn feels further from Will now, a memory. He is gone. The third time comes with a longer pause as the reality crushes down on Will that Shawn is gone. These pauses, these spaces perfectly sum up the emotional reckoning everyone goes through after losing someone suddenly. It also shows how distant their memory becomes from their loved ones over time. It’s still there, still cherished, but they are more distant as time goes on.
The short phrases capture the despair of his brother. When grief takes over a person, they have trouble forming thoughts and sentences to express themselves. They often speak simply to try to keep themselves together, to keep from crying as Will must to follow the rules.
The last stanzas, the most crushing of the poem, bring to the front the reality of life in Will’s world—certain or, at least likely, premature death. It isn’t surprising to anyone that Shawn has died. Almost anywhere else in America, it would be utterly shocking that a young man died suddenly, but to those in Will’s life, it’s an average day.
Take Five Activity:
- Read the poem slowly, pausing between each line and each space. Let the students sit with the poem for a while.
- Discuss the process of grieving and allow the students to throw out ideas that explain the spacing and language used in the poem.
- Pass out copies of the lyrics of “Brutha Put the Gun Away” by 187 F.A.C., “Self Destruction” by The Stop the Violence Movement, and “Inner Ninja” by Classified to the class. Separate the class into three groups and have each group listen to one song. Give each group time to discuss before bringing the groups together to share their thoughts on the selections.
- Read the poem again and discuss how the songs relate to the theme.
- Have a discussion on social justice and the reason why Shawn’s death is “not surprising.”