David Burke may seem like an awkward, average teenager, and in most ways he is. However, unlike most teens, David spends a good deal of time looking after his severely disabled younger sister, Ivy. She gets all the attention, whereas David believes he’s practically invisible to his parents. It’s not surprising that sometimes David feels resentful of Ivy, and it is in one of these moments of frustration that Kathy Stinson begins this compelling family drama, What Happened to Ivy. Given that Stinson has penned more than thirty titles across many genres, it’s not surprising that her prose effortlessly captures the range of emotions encompassed in this story.
Indeed, Stinson does cover a lot of ground in this novel. What starts out as a tale of David’s experience dealing with life in the shadows of his sister’s illness quickly turns a shade darker when David must confront his sister’s sudden death and the puzzle of what really happened to Ivy. In the midst of this confusion, David is also trying to come to terms with his overwhelming feelings of attraction to his new neighbor. Hannah is also in her mid-teens, but unlike him, she is cool and polished. Nevertheless, the two seem to be heading toward young love when Ivy unexpectedly dies in an accident on a family vacation, with David’s father, Stephen, as the only witness. David begins to doubt his father’s account of what happened when a prank phone call and rumors circulating around town won’t let him mourn in peace.
What is most refreshing about this novel is its honesty. So many novels with young protagonists shy away from giving characters real-life problems to negotiate. Stinson, however, rolls up her sleeves and really describes what it’s like to cope with a family member’s disability. She does this with great sensitivity, carefully yet frankly discussing the reality of day-to-day life. David’s love of his sister is subject to human failings, and he expresses that exasperation by indulging in self-pity: “So, big deal Dad was actually showing an interest in what I was doing. So, big deal it didn’t last because Ivy needed something. When doesn’t she need something? When isn’t she messing up something?” Impatient thoughts like these are often followed by feelings of guilt, which David feels in equal or greater measure. Stinson’s candor may earn her a few new readers, as according to the US Census, one in twelve children has a physical or mental disability.
While What Happened to Ivy will undoubtedly resonate with families coping with the demands of special needs children, it can also be enjoyed for the well-wrought story that it is. Stinson has created a very relatable protagonist in David. His unfiltered thoughts and feelings ring true, making his walk through the aftermath of his sister’s death a worthwhile trip to take.