Red Kayak, Priscilla Cummings
Thirteen-year-old Brady thinks his life on Chesapeake Bay is great. He has two friends that he’s known forever — J.T. and Digger — and a paramedic cousin who gives them rides to school in his ambulance. One day as they are waiting for their ride to school, the boys see one of Brady’s neighbors set off down the creek in a red kayak. Brady worries that the creek might be too strong for an inexperienced kayaker, but the boys shrug it off and head to school. Later that day, Brady’s dad pulls him out of school to help search for two missing people — Mrs. DiAngelo and her young son, Ben, who went out on the creek in the red kayak that morning. As they are searching, Brady finds himself wondering what might have happened if he had called out a warning, let the occupants of the kayak know that it was dangerous to go down the creek. After Mrs. DiAngelo and Ben are found, Brady finds himself being treated as a hero for helping to find them, but still feels guilty for having not prevented the accident in the first place.
This book moves at a swift pace, and Brady is an excellent narrator, almost too polished and coherent for a thirteen year old boy. It addresses well the questions of shame, responsibility, and the bonds of friendship, and captures Brady’s conflict between his loyalty to his friends and his conscience. The universal themes of “What if?” and “Am I to blame?” are presented in a compelling story; the fact that Brady thinks about the possible consequences of his actions demonstrates his maturity and understanding. The reflective introduction helps to set up the suspense of the narrative and early in the second chapter, Brady notes flaws in his friends’ characters which creates some forshadowing of each person’s future actions: when Digger, who is in one of his “moods,” talks down to J.T., Brady wants to defend J.T., but doesn’t, instead choosing to distract the two from their bickering. In addition, Brady’s parents and cousin provide an extremely supportive environment for him, especially as he deals with feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and confusion, allowing him to talk to them, spending time with him, and generally being understanding even when he lashes out. The reader also learns a great deal about the characters of Brady’s parents, as his father worries about the future of his livelihood catching crabs and shellfish, and his mother still struggles with the sudden death of her baby daughter over five years ago. As Brady works through his guilt by helping Mrs. DiAngelo, he begins to learn about the different ways that people can experience and deal with their guilt, both constructively and destructively, and manages to help many of the people around him come to understand that as well.