Published in May 2021, Drifting is the follow-up to writer Steven Cross’s young adult novel from 2019, Drowning. In the first book, we are introduced to Dean Knight, a young man who struggles to keep himself grounded as he comes to terms with mysteries of his past and his current mental health struggles. I definitely recommend beginning your journey with this series with the first book, though the second does give enough information to help the reader catch up, so it could be read as a standalone work.
Dean Knight wakes from a coma, miraculously so according to his Grandma Rose who claims she prayed him back to life. Dean at first remembers nothing of the events of his past, including the harrowing ordeal which nearly killed him. Upon waking, he finds himself restrained. He remembers he is “a danger to self and others.” Did he try to kill himself as everyone says, or should he remain open to the idea that someone else is responsible? All he knows is he has a grandmother who fought for him to live and a mother who would prefer he’d just died. He’s notified by his doctor, Dr. King, that he suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which basically combines all the worst parts of schizophrenia and mood disorders, like mania or depression. He is what his Grandma Rose would call “crazier than a shithouse rat.” Dean, haunted by his own returning memories and a mix of delusions and nightmares, will spend his coming days trying to make sense of it all. He will uncover mysteries about himself and his family, mysteries he’s not sure he wants to solve.
Along the way he’s assisted by people he doesn’t remember from his past, but he knows they are important to him. There’s Rocky, a girl he knows from his first stay at the mental health facility. There’s Ella, an enigmatic girl from school with whom he shares a complicated history but can’t quite recall. And there’s Dee, his sister. She’s not here but he doesn’t know why. He knows it was bad. Can he trust the people still in his life? Or will these enigmatic souls lead him back into the abyss to be swallowed by the monsters that have haunted him for years, the same monsters that swallowed his father many years ago. The novel alternates between the first person narration from Dean and a first person narration from Rocky who is dealing with her own mental anguish stemming from her long history of abuse, including the threats of abuse stemming from an individual currently in her home.
There is so much to this book. First of all, I want to start off with some trigger warnings. This novel tackles some extremely heavy themes, and many scenes could be very distressing to certain readers. There’s sexual abuse, domestic violence, bullying, rape, talk of and depictions of suicide, among others. Everything is handled quite tastefully and with the utmost reverence, and I feel in the context of the story each of them is of vital importance. I never felt this novel verged over into gratuitous violence or sexual content. There are elements of horror, and this manifests as very detailed renderings of Dean’s imagined delusions and nightmares. These scenes are where Cross’s true writing ability shines, as he effortlessly employs imagery to deliver readers a frightening and realistic view of what it’s like to live within the confines of Dean’s hallucinations. Whether readers have experienced such a thing or not, they can easily place themselves within such a nightmare scenario. To quote my favorite line from Drowning, “words are just words until someone makes them live.” Cross may have been talking about a character from his book, but he could also say it about himself.
While I don’t have a long history, myself, of grappling with severe mental illness, I have read reviews from other readers who applaud Cross’s depiction of Dean’s struggles which truly did mirror their own in a way that was quite cathartic. This book does contain a very gripping, very raw, portrait of the loneliness, confusion, and self loathing that can accompany such a journey. So while I don’t feel I’m in the best position to critique Cross’s portrayal of this subject matter, I trust the opinion of other readers who rave about his ability to craft a truly authentic and beautiful story about navigating such trials. But this novel also explores the intense bond that can form between two people who are experiencing the same kind of psychological torment. In that respect, it’s very much about finding love and acceptance of oneself the way another person could. Cross has been very open in the past about his own personal struggles with mental illness, and he infuses his writing with that intimate knowledge and understanding.
Writer and Educator, Steven M. Cross, author of the young adult novels Drowning and Drifting, powerful novels about a young man’s mental health struggles. Cross lives in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with his wife. He enjoys finally having time in retirement to focus on his writing endeavors. You can find him on Twitter @stevecrosswords and at his blog at The Old Goat.
Another thing Cross does extremely well is the narrative voice. Dean is a fabulous narrator, as his mere place as the protagonist in this story places us with a mystery to unravel. We want to be able to trust him, but Dean can’t even trust himself. He’s the quintessential unreliable narrator, as we are tasked with helping him discern the difference between his delusions and real memories. However, Dean is also a typical teenager in many respects. Just because he has a whole host of other issues doesn’t mean he’s saved from having the typical hurdles of your average teen. For instance, he has some serious girl troubles, though sometimes these also manifest in a rather interesting atypical fashion, especially when it comes to Ella.
Cross is extremely well-suited to writing this kind of book, as he’s a retired educator from a small Missouri town very similar to the one he uses for the setting of Drowning. As I grew up in this kind of town, as well, I can attest to the authenticity of this setting and of the characters that populate such a town. There’s a special kind of authenticity to the level of prejudice that permeates high schools in these kind of rural environments that Cross depicts in his book. Jock culture dominates, rape is still swept under the rug, and those who are labeled weaker are often silenced by those in positions of power. Cross is able to bring this to light without verging into stereotypes. Jerry and Brodie, for instance, are star members of the baseball team. Both boys excel at athletics, but they are hiding their romantic relationship from the other members of the team due to the prejudices that still permeate the community. Jerry, however, is also a talented member of the drama club, proving that high school students don’t have to be either a jock or a drama geek but they can have whatever combination of interests suit them. Also, to be clear, to me the word geek is anything but an insult.
I also want to touch on my absolute favorite character: Rose. Rose is an incredibly interesting woman. I would venture a guess that anyone who grew up in a small rural town like Dean’s knows at least one Rose. She’s the crass, wildly inappropriate, possibly crazy but incredibly genuine matriarch of the family. She’s not perfect, but when it all boils down to it she’ll be the last person still standing by your side despite all the bullshit you’ve put her through. She is probably the most authentic character in Cross’s story, and I love her for all her contradictions of personality. While she doesn’t always talk like the moral center of Dean’s universe, she always acts as the moral center, and that makes all the difference. She’s there for Dean in all the ways that truly matter, but she’s hands off enough to know when she needs to step back to make way for Dean’s own personal growth through experience.
If I had to nitpick, the only thing that moderately confused me from time to time was the delineation between the separate sections. There wasn’t really anything to set Rocky’s parts aside from Dean’s, so it takes the reader a moment to pick up on who is talking. Though it wasn’t so overt as to completely distract from the story.
Overall, I think this book has a very important place among other modern young adult novels in the literary canon surrounding mental health. It’s moving and extremely powerful, and it presents characters to which today’s youth can easily identify. I certainly hope to see the name Steven M. Cross pop up on more shelves in bookstores across the country. If you’d like to get a copy of either of these books on Kindle or in paperback, you can pick one up on Amazon at Cross’s author page.
Published May 25, 2021 by Liminal Books. ISBN 9781950502363. 310 pages.
Thanks to Steven M. Cross and Liminal Books for a galley copy of the text in exchange for an honest reviews. This review contains affiliate links.