Book Review: Swallowing Stones by Joyce McDonald

Swallowing Stones by Joyce McDonald
Random House, 1997, 245 pages

Editor's Note: Hi there!  It's me, Sara, updating this post nearly 6 years after I wrote it.  Interestingly, this is the most popular post on my blog.  And tracking data indicates that a lot of people are searching for a summary of "Swallowing Stones".  I have a very strong suspicion that many of you are students looking for some help on a book review or summary.  You see, I was a high school teacher.  I know these things.  So feel free to use my post to better understand the book, or maybe see if you want to read it for yourself, but DO NOT PLAGIARIZE MY REVIEW.  Your teacher knows how to Google... they will find out.  Thank you :).

On his seventeenth birthday, Michael receives a Winchester rifle as a gift from his grandfather. He and his friend Joe take it out into the woods behind his house and shoot it into the air in celebration.

Across town, an innocent man who is fixing his roof is struck in the head by the bullet and dies instantly. His teenage daughter, Jenna, is witness to this tragic accident.

This is an interesting and compelling story, made more so by McDonald's narrative style. The chapters of the book alternate between the perspective of Michael and Jenna. Each has their own knowledge of the incident and as the book progresses more and more clues are exposed as the two grow closer together.

A nice feature of this book is the realistic, age-appropriate characters and relationships. Jenna and her boyfriend have trouble when Jenna suddenly begins having panic attacks whenever he's around. Michael is so wrapped up in his guilt over what he's done that he alienates his girlfriend. Joe's occasional beer at a summer party increases to a drinking problem. The secret of who fired the gun expands like a balloon with guilt and lies.

There is also an element of magic realism to the book, as both Michael and Jenna are drawn together by visions of a "ghost tree" with powerful spiritual energy.

Overall, "Swallowing Stones" is an excellent picture of how tragedy affects those who are left behind. It also gives a glimpse into the guilt that surrounds someone who has accidentally caused a tragic accident. These themes are effectively delivered through realistic teenage characters, making this a solid young adult novel.


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