October 2009

Kelly Zavala

fiction

Diary of a Witness by Catherine Ryan Hyde

 Diary of a Witness is the newest in a long line of successful novels by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  She is most known for her novel Pay It Forward, which was adapted into a major motion picture starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. In her new novel, Hyde continues to leave readers breathless with her profound sincerity and utter devotion to diving deep into the heart of a complex emotional story. Hyde casts the line and hooks her readers in the tale of two teenage boys who must face the consequences of a terrible tragedy that permanently changes their lives.

High school students Will Manson and Ernie Boyd are the target of incessant bullying. Ernie says their friendship developed "because we have three big things in common. We each only have one parent. We each really like to fish. ... And, most important, neither one of us has even one other person who wants to be our friend." Hyde keeps her characters' introduction brief, detailing their characteristics in relation to the reason they are bullied. Ernie, whose excess weight causes the brunt of his torture, is forced to look over his shoulder at every turn. Will's acne, dorky love of fishing and his intelligence makes him an outcast too. Ernie says Will might be safe "If his skin cleared up and he got his ears pinned by a plastic surgeon” and if “he never once talked.”

Hyde authentically captures the voice of her characters by using simplistic writing with more dramatic emotional undercurrents. Ernie's thoughts are relayed as short, crisp sentences and fragments, much like actual thoughts, which naturally occur in starts and stops. For example, the author will start a sentence. But she may not finish it. And will instead break it up like this. In this way, Hyde presents the tragic fishing accident that changes everything. Will tells Ernie about his brother's drowning, "I had this image in my head of Sam floating in the water, at the end of his own rig. Tethered down to the boat. Right underneath us. The whole time we were putting on our life vests. Putting that red on the stringer. That whole time, the kid was down there. Right underneath us. Running out of time." Instead of paragraphs of emotion, hysteria, and panic, Will’s brief and disjointed thoughts perfectly represent the shock, pain, and guilt he felt.

Hyde peppers the novel with emotional musings both true to the character and sharp enough to cut. After the accident, Will must miserably accept his teachers' outpourings of sympathy. Ernie feels that all he can do is “just stand there like a dork, ten steps back, like I could dive in and stop the bleeding when it was over. But I couldn't. That's the problem. I couldn't." Ernie's feelings of helplessness are obvious; Will is not the same young man he used to be. When Will concludes that maybe he isn’t even here anymore, that he doesn't exist, Ernie "figured he was kidding. Hell, I prayed he was kidding. I had to act like I was sure he was. Anything else would be too weird." His indecision continues, especially after Will starts dropping comments like, "I'm going to do something. I'm going to do something about it. Something permanent.”

Particularly impressive is Hyde's portrayal of Will not as a monster, but as a sad and confused human being. Ernie worries not that his best friend has turned into a monster, just that "things are taking a bad turn.” He realizes his best friend is just afflicted with a skewed vision of how bad the bad guys were but sticks by him just the same. "It felt weird,” Ernie writes in his diary, “Like the whole issue was not exactly life or death except in Will's head. Like he took it and made it that way and I couldn't stop him.” It all comes to a head just three months after the accident when Will leaves for school with violence in mind. Ernie panics and calls 911. Everything is illuminated for Ernie then. He says later that Will’s last words held an odd tone to them, “Something that let me see how big that dangerous thing in him had gotten. Then I wondered why it took me so long to see." Hyde is true to the fact that Will himself is not a monster, merely that he had been taken over by something horrendous and overpowering.

The common theme in all of the issues represented in this book turns out to be respect. If Ernie respected his body more, he probably wouldn’t be overweight. If Will’s parents respected him more, he might not feel unloved enough to crack under the pressure of his guilt. If the students respected each other more, maybe there wouldn’t be bullying in the first place. Ernie speaks of a fish he calls Moby who lives by a waterfall, the only place Ernie ever saw Will truly happy. “I'm not even sure I can explain why I don't want to try to catch him anymore. It’s like I admire him for being so strong and so wily. Breaking so many lines and throwing so many hooks. And even for the times he got squarely caught but somehow managed to get the fishermen to respect him enough to put him back."
It all comes down to respect. Catherine Ryan Hyde expertly portrays what happens when respect is given and when it is withheld. Diary of a Witness is a profoundly moving work of art in which two young boys face challenges and choose paths that shape their destiny.

 

Diary of a Witness by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Knopf
ISBN: 0375856846
208 Pages

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