The Deathday Letter by Shaun David Hutchinson is a teen/YA novel with more depth and warmth than first appears. It grew on me the longer I read, and, as I finished it, I was surprised to realize that I had actually liked it quite a bit.
The premise of the book is quite simple: it’s a society where people receive a Deathday Letter the day before they will die. Fifteen-year old Ollie receives his Deathday Letter at the start of the novel and has only 24 hours left to live. He wants to make the best of his last day.
I expected the novel to delve deeper into the concept of the Deathday Letter itself – why this happens, how it happens – but it didn’t. It just assumed this was the way things were and moved onto Ollie’s own story, which turned out to be just fine with me.
Since the novel is told from the point of view of a teenage boy, it is filled with all sorts of lewd observations and actions – sex, drugs, and roll ‘n roll, right? At first, this nonstop barrage of jokes and sex talk was irritating to me, but then it occurred to me that maybe this is really how a teen boy would react to his impending death, covering his real feelings with humor. Here, he has just told his best friend about his letter:
Shane claps me on the back. “Listen, I’ve known you since you were a baby, man. You’re like a brother. I know everything there is to know about you, and lots of stuff I wish I didn’t. It’s not just my job to tell you the truth, it’s my obligation.”
We stand in silence until finally I say, “What do we do about my letter?” because standing around not talking about our feelings feels way gayer than actually talking about our feelings.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not going back to class. I already know how the war ends. We won. And I don’t want to stand around and cry about my letter.”
So, Ollie and Shane skip school and bring along Ronnie, their childhood friend and Ollie’s recent girlfriend (who broke up with him). They embark on the kinds of things you would expect teenagers with nothing to lose to embark on. Filled with dark humor, The Deathday Letter explores life and death, love and sex, and the meaning of friendship. Though crude at times, the novel redeems itself with a tender, thoughtful, and thought-provoking ending. I’m glad I read it.
240 pages, Simon Pulse
For more information, check out the author's website and blog.