I first found Jacqueline Woodson when I read Brown Girl Dreaming after it won the National Book Award. It was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was not a typical narrative and almost felt like poetry. Thus, it was very emotional and impactful in parts but also sometimes more difficult to read than a straight-forward story. After that experience, I’ve read whatever Woodson book I’ve noticed has been recently published.
Before the Ever After (2020) is a short novel that addresses chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that has plagued NFL players (and other vulnerable athletes). Woodson brings attention to this subject by putting us in the eyes of a child. I don’t really follow football, but it’s much easier to dismiss the seriousness and devastation of CTE when you hear a quick story on the news about a retired NFL player. It’s much harder to do that when you intimately watch a little boy lose his father.
“And all these years later, just like that day, I know he’s not my hero, he’s my dad, which means he’s my every single thing.” (4)
ZJ’s dad is a pro football player. He’s fun and loving and plays with the neighborhood kids. But then his father started missing games because of injuries. And then he starts acting differently. He’s not even thirty-five years old, but the father that ZJ knew is basically gone. ZJ’s mother says it’s because his dad hit his head so much in football, but the doctors haven’t figured it out yet. He goes to doctor after doctor and nothing helps.
This story is incredibly sad, but ZJ’s friendships are a solace to him throughout. These friends also add more dimension to ZJ as a person throughout the book.
This story was a quick, powerful read that reminded me of the personal tragedies tied to America’s most popular sport.
“My daddy had never yelled at us kids. So in some kind of way, the world as we’d always known it had already ended.” (35)
“All those times he got knocked down and knocked out, my daddy kept getting up but maybe some part of him stayed on the ground.” (77)
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