Friday, June 6, 2014

Nonfiction: This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl

As fans of young adult fiction writer John Green are aware, the movie based on his best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, hits movie theaters today. I blogged about his book the year it came out, as I had become a John Green fan after reading Paper Towns the year before. I decided that today would be the perfect day for me to post an entry on This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl. While Green's The Fault in Our Stars is not about Esther Earl, it is dedicated to her as Green met her and corresponded with her on many occasions. And like Green's main character in his book, Esther was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a young age.

The Situation: Esther Earl was the middle child in a family of five kids, all being raised by their mom and dad, Lori and Wayne. When Esther was 12 she and her family lived in France where she attended school, played with her friends, and siblings, studied French, and generally just enjoyed being a kid. It was when she was playing or simply walking that she would have a hard time breathing, and it would take her longer than normal to catch her breath once they were done. Her parents had originally thought it was nothing more than a sore muscle, but an x-ray would reveal fluid in her lungs which was causing her breathing difficulties. Since it was clearly not a sore muscle, the next most-likely options were pneumonia or tuberculosis.

The Problem: In 2006, at 12 years old, Esther was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The cancer had already spread, causing tumors in her lungs, making it hard for her to breath...something she would deal with for the remainder of her life. Because of Esther's diagnosis, her family would move back to the US so she could be taken care of in a hospital that could better treat her condition. The next three years would involve weekly hospital visits (many times more than once a week); occasional hospital stays when Esther's condition would worsen and she couldn't be taken care of at home; oxygen tanks that she would have to have with her at all times as her lungs could not function on their own; various treatments of both radiation and chemotherapy; various pain medicines in order to manage the symptoms that came along with having cancer and being treated for it; plus many more difficulties that come from being a young girl with a serious illness. Despite of all it, Esther remained the same bright, funny, creative, hopeful, faithful, loving, and caring girl she always was.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that focuses mostly on the life and writing of Esther between November 2006 when she is first diagnosed with cancer, and August 2010 when she passes away due to complications of the disease. There is also a good amount of letters and stories in the book following the details of her death, mostly from her parents, but also from friends and family members, and even some from Esther herself. The family decided to include some of Esther's fiction writing at the end of the book. None of it is finished, but it is stuff she was working on at one point or another, and all of if simply showcases her creativity and how much she liked to just create. John Green would meet Esther at LeakyCon 2009, a conference that celebrates all things related to Harry Potter, in Boston, and decided to continue to keep tabs on her, leading him to actually end up being part of wish for Make-A-Wish, where he would spend a day with her and her friends at his own personal expense. The book not only contains journal entries from Esther, but also letters that she wrote to others, mostly her parents; entries that her parents made to a website in order to keep everyone updated on her condition; chat transcripts from the small but intimate group of friends she made over the Internet; a few entries from doctors and other people who came in contact with her at one time or another; and even some letters from her siblings written to Esther years after her death. It isn't just a book about a girl with cancer. Esther was a fighter, with an incredibly unwavering faith in God, and it is easy to see why the organization that was created in her honor chose the name "This Star Won't Go Out."

My Verdict: Even after finishing the book and putting it away, it is hard to even just write how I felt about it without potentially losing it and surrendering to the lump that continues to rise in my throat. Green says it best in the introduction when he calls it a great injustice that someone so amazing could be taken so young by something like cancer. I would feel weird to say that everyone should read this book, because I know that there are some who are in a place where they just aren't ready for something like this. It isn't really a sad book. In fact, if anything, it is a celebration of Esther's short life and those she touched despite her incredibly difficult circumstances. Even so, there is a point in the book where her death is retold, and to take it out of her story or gloss over it would have been a different sort of injustice. Wayne said in his eulogy at Esther's funeral that she loved. That was what she did. Esther just loved. And maybe that is what we can take away from this book. Because, let's face it, for most of us, even on our best days, loving is just not something we're all that good at. 

Favorite Moment: When Esther's friends and family find a way to sneak her cat into her hospital room.

Recommended Reading: The obvious choice is of course The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Again, the book isn't about her, but it is dedicated to her, and she shares many similarities with the main character, Hazel.   

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