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BookBrowse Reviews A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern

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A Step Toward Falling

by Cammie McGovern

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern X
A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2016, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bradley Sides
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A powerful novel about learning from your mistakes and learning to forgive.

Haven't we all needed a second chance with first impressions? Whether is was an initial meeting gone awry or a misspoken greeting that left us feeling defeated, bad first impressions are tough to overcome. Notice that I said that they are tough, not impossible. In Cammie McGovern's remarkably moving YA novel, A Step Toward Falling, we see that getting a second chance can make all the difference.

We meet Emily during her first hours of involuntary community service at a center for cognitively disabled young adults. On first impression, we might assume that she's a troubled teenager – someone repaying her past transgressions, but we'd be wrong (mostly). She is actually a young girl who participates in academic activities at school and in other clubs that promote positive social progression for disenfranchised youths. She is also someone who made a bad choice: at a high school football game she witnesses a sexual assault on Belinda, a classmate with developmental disabilities – and she did nothing. Emily knows that she should've helped. She knows that she should've told someone. She should've yelled. She should've done anything. But, she didn't, and not helping someone who seems so helpless is something she has to live with.

Emily wasn't alone in her troubling actions on that night. Her cohort was Lucas, an important member of their high school's football team. He's a jock, but like Emily, he's not what we expect upon meeting him. He's not an emotionally detached, uncaring jerk. In fact, he carries as much sensitivity, if not more, than Emily. He is passionate and deeply upset with what he allowed himself to (not) do. As Emily and Lucas grow together, while spending time working at the community center, they become involved more than they could have ever imagined. In the novel's triumphant closing act, they stage a production of Jane Eyre's Pride and Prejudice that involves themselves, Belinda, and Belinda's disabled friend, Anthony. And, oh, is it glorious.

McGovern is wise in how she structures her novel. Rather than telling A Step Toward Falling through the dual voices of Emily and Lucas, she, instead, presents something less conventional, creating alternating points of view between Emily and the cognitively disabled Belinda.

The voice McGovern gives Emily is rather lovely. Emily's guilt oozes through the pages, and her initial nervousness while working with the disabled students is spot on. Once she gets more comfortable in her position and finds a route for her atonement, she is a joy to witness. She wants so desperately to not just feel better; she actually wants to do better: "Belinda has gone to our school forever, she loves acting and she's good at it but she's never had a chance to be in a show. Let's give her that. Let's give her a chance to show the world something beyond her disability. Let's let everyone see her ability." Her plea to help Belinda is one of the novel's best moments.

While Emily is pretty great on her own, Belinda's voice is the novel's revelation. McGovern creates the perfect blend of emotions that a character in Belinda's situation would likely feel, mixing hope, anger, confusion, and forgiveness. Yes, Belinda is different from Emily and Lucas. Her disability unfortunately and unfairly separates her from others; however, she is similar in that she, too, isn't who we initially see her as being – solely a victim. Belinda transforms from being someone who is timid and wants to work in the school's mailroom to a bold and talented actress. She experiences the worst in people, but she isn't afraid to find the goodness that surrounds her.

The characters assist in creating a concluding message that is as much about overcoming first impressions as it is about the value of forgiveness – and moving toward a better tomorrow. Yes, there is darkness along the way, but A Step Toward Falling hits with such wonderful, untamed optimism that it's hard not to fall in love with McGovern's story.

McGovern mixes sentimentality with grit, and she gets the balance just right. What she's painted here is a beautiful portrait of a real teenage world that is capable of hopefulness and healing.

Fans of Rainbow Rowell and Jandy Nelson's brand of realistic YA fiction should find a new favorite in Cammie McGovern's lovely A Step Toward Falling.

Reviewed by Bradley Sides

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2015, and has been updated for the January 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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