Phoenix Rising by Karen Hesse; Henry Holt
& Company: New York, 1994; $16.95
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people live and others die? Isn’t it ironic how a loss can bring two strangers together, but then ultimately, keep them apart? These are some of the questions which Karen Hesse explores in Phoenix Rising a story of a friendship blossoming from one of the most devastating tragedies imaginable—an accident at a nuclear power plant.
Nyle, a young teenage girl, has already lost her mother and grandfather when the accident happens at Cookshire power plant. She lives with her grandmother on their farm near the plant, and watches with horror and fear as the power accident spreads radioactive nuclear energy, destroying their flock and their crops. Nyle knows that people are dying as well, and wonders if she and her grandmother will be next. If you have never lost a loved one, you may not understand Nyle’s anger when she hears that Miriam and Ezra Trent, two sick refugees from the accident, are coming to stay in the back bedroom—the same bedroom where both Nyle’s mother and grandfather died. But I understood Nyle’s feelings, for last year my uncle, who was only forty years old, died after a terrible illness. Nyle’s anger is rooted in fear—fear of getting close to people only to lose them. She tries to build a wall, to protect herself from further hurt. As the story progresses, however, Nyle learns—and the reader learns with her—how to break down those walls.
Nyle’s grandmother convinces her that taking the refugees in is the right thing to do. Difficult as it is for her emotionally, Nyle tries to make the best of the situation, and begins to spend time with Ezra. At first she reads to him and wets his face with compresses, but then they start to really talk—to connect—and they develop a deep relationship that goes both ways. It is not just that Nyle learns to care for Ezra, all the while knowing that she might lose him; Ezra also cares for Nyle, and his caring for her transforms her. As their friendship progresses, Nyle is no longer the closed, guarded person we met at the beginning of the story Ezra has an uncanny way of making Nyle open up. Nyle feels that Ezra understands her, and she is able to confide her deepest thoughts in him. Through Ezra, Nyle begins to break down her walls, and rebuild herself as a person. What a lesson in friendship!
Phoenix Rising is also, however, a lesson in strength of mind and spirit. Ezra, like my dear Uncle David, was so sick that he could hardly move, but he willed himself to keep going on. He found the strength to keep living and to help others live their lives at the same time. While it is true that Nyle gave Ezra strength and prolonged his life, it is more remarkable how Ezra actually brought Nyle back to life. My uncle, like Ezra, gave me strength even as he lay dying, and I sat by his side. No matter how weak he was, he never stopped trying to animate me with his humor. The story of Ezra and Nyle confirmed for me that friendship and love are a two-way street. And we can learn so much in life—about how to live life—from helping to give life to those who are suffering.