Goodreads: Long Way Down
Will just watched his older brother die. And he’s pretty sure he knows the guy who shot him. So it’s time to follow the Rules. The most important Rule? Get revenge. But as Will takes the elevator down to find his target, he is joined by a series of spirits who tell him their stories. It seems that the Rules solve nothing and only continue the cycle of violence. And suddenly Will has a choice: follow the Rules and end up like Shawn, or ignore the Rules his family has passed down for generations. A novel told in verse about the futility of gun violence.
Jason Reynolds has previously impressed me with his vivid characterization and his sympathetic portrayals of young people trying to make their way through a broken world. I was therefore very excited for Long Way Down, which has collected an impressive array of awards and honors. However, though it pains me to say so, I did not connect with Long Way Down in the way I expected. Instead, I was left with the impression that the awards were given for the message of the book and not for the actual execution of the story.
Long Way Down continues a long tradition of ghost tales in which individuals from the afterlife return to convince the protagonist to make better choices. In this case, protagonist Will must be persuaded that following the Rules of his neighborhood–the Rules that demand he kill the person who killed his brother–will result in his death and continue the cycle of gun violence in his neighborhood. This is an obviously didactic approach and one that must be handled deftly if readers are to immerse themselves in the story and not feel instead like they are receiving a Very Important Message. And here the story struggles.
The bulk of the story focuses on various ghosts as they enter Will’s elevator and reveal details about their lives Will previously did not know. As each new ghost appears, it becomes clear that the men in Will’s family have fallen one by one as they, following the Rules, were in turn shot by someone else following the Rules. But as each ghost tells their story, Will himself fades into the background. It is thus difficult to connect with Will or to feel his struggle, even though this is the critical point upon which the story turns. Readers know more about Will’s confusion about how ghosts smoke than they know about his inclination to choose to follow or to reject the Rules.
Obviously, promoting an end to gun violence is a very laudable goal and it is heartening that Jason Reynolds chose to use his platform to spread a positive message. In this respect, I commend Long Way Down. However, I wish that the story had spent a little more time with Will so that readers could truly get to know him, before his story was subsumed by the stories of the others. I appreciate that his story is, of course, a continuation of theirs. But I still wanted to hear Will’s voice more. The point of a book like this is to make a message personal, to make readers understand why Will sees a choice where someone else might see no choice at all. But it is difficult to hear Will’s voice when the moral of the story is shouting over him.