The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell | Teen Ink

The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

September 26, 2015
By sharpened_pencil GOLD, Warren, New Jersey
sharpened_pencil GOLD, Warren, New Jersey
11 articles 1 photo 38 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Life can suck, sure. Mostly though it's a blank canvas. If you want to see something brighter in it, you might have to add it yourself." -Patrick Stump, Fall Out Boy

What if you couldn't walk? What if you didn't know when you’d be unable to bathe, get out of bed, or dress yourself? What if you had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS? And what if you were only a teenager?

In 2014, the vast expanses of the Internet created the ALS Ice Bucket challenge to spread awareness about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. By the end of the challenge, $115 million was raised, and many were now aware of this muscular disease, including myself.

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, tackles the disease head on through the eyes of timid protagonist Abe Sora. Only seventeen years old and already suffering from ALS, Sora struggles to remain hopeful as his physical abilities deteriorate, he becomes unable to attend school anymore, and loneliness is a frequent visitor. Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, Sora also utilizes the Internet to join an online chat forum for teens. Through the site Sora forms unlikely Internet friendships with Mei, an aspiring artist, and Kaito, an avid gamer who is into web design. Behind a screen, Sora is free from his disease, but as the three grow closer, Sora knows he can’t hide his secret forever. Once he is revealed to have ALS, the three meet in person and navigate a supportive new friendship. But Sora’s condition is worsening by the day, and as he sees the other patients at therapy sessions he knows his life will be reduced to an active mind in an unresponsive body. Sora had felt helpless about his fate, but inspired by the moving poems of the samurai, Sora begins to realize he may have some control over how he lives his last days.

Set in Kyoto, Benwell weaves bits and pieces of wonderfully weird Japan into the smiling hearts of these teenagers. Despite possibly not being natively Japanese, readers can still feel a warm sense of familiarity in a foreign setting. The novel glows with universal themes of family, love, and friendship that can be felt through the pages. Each character is developed and lovable. Mei and Kaito have their own interests and goals like Sora, which helps them feel three-dimensional. Sora especially, with his physical ailments, still retains a teenage exuberance along with wisdom and wit.

The novel is as smile-worthy heartwarming as it is gut-wrenchingly sad, dotted with poignant snapshots of Sora's life. While I felt the second half was slightly rushed, along with Kaito, Mei, and Sora’s friendship, the bond is still genuine and the story is enjoyable.

The Last Leaves Falling also addresses ableism and its damaging effects. Sora's reactions to both sympathizers and cyber bullies give a surprising new view on the subject. One scene in particular, where Sora posts a picture of a wheelchair-bound boy and asks the forum users how they would treat him, is a bitterly honest portrayal of how the disabled are treated in today’s society. It is presented with a raw sense of honesty, something I loved and was impressed by.

Most of all, The Last Leaves Falling presents life in a dramatically fragile way, but also reveals hidden gems. Whether it's Kaito daring Sora to try squid ink ice cream or Sora and his mother enjoying a moment at the park, The Last Leaves Falling and it's tiny little world reminds us that this rollercoaster called life is full of beautiful things, as long as you stop and look for them.

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