Green Writers Press, 200 pages, paperback, $10.99
Sarah Ward’s Aesop Lake is a riveting, fast-paced YA novel that does an excellent job portraying a brutal hate crime (in this case, in a small, rural community) and the aftereffects relating to the people involved: the two victims, Jonathan and Ricky, the perpetrators, David and MJ, and the lone witness, Leda, who is David’s girlfriend.
The story is told in the first-person via alternating narrators, Jonathan and Leda, students at the fictional Mount Lincoln High School in Vermont. Jonathan’s viewpoint shares with the reader the first-hand terror of the attack and the anguish — and strength — of the survivors in the aftermath, while Leda’s narration explains her plight of wanting to do the right thing (telling the police that her boyfriend and MJ were the perpetrators), but feeling as though she cannot. Why? Because Leda’s mother is involved in some shady behavior that, if exposed, could land her in legal hot water — and David, knowing this, blackmails Leda into covering for him with a phony alibi.
So that’s the setup of the story, and from there Ward takes us through a moral and ethical tug-of-war that plays out over the course of a summer break from school. Ricky, Jonathan, Leda, and other characters all have to contend with the the fallout of the events that take place early in the story — and eventually, everything comes to a head.
Aside from crafting an excellent plot and believable characters, Ward does the reader a great service with her frank depictions of the crime committed and the exploration of the aftermath. In addition to homophobic attitudes and violence, the story touches upon sexual assault, depression, and suicide, and Ward deftly explores these themes with a voice that remains appropriate for the YA audience while avoiding sugarcoating. In doing so, she shows a great deal of respect for the intended readership. Of course, despite the dark places Aesop Lake takes you, it ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope and optimism, and shows that redemption is possible. And it does so with an entertaining, gripping story that, in my opinion, is suitable for an older audience as well.
I think it is also worth noting that the book includes a handful of very nice illustrations by the author’s daughter, Lindsay L. Ward, as well as a list of resources and a discussion guide in the back. I can see this being a great book to read and discuss in a classroom setting — not to mention, it would make for a fantastic adaptation to the screen.