Books on the Blog: Everything I Never Told You
by Sharon Williams
Each year I teach a historical fiction reading unit in the reading workshop format. Students are offered 14 titles to choose from and are paired with other students who pick the same title. When our grade level team of LA teachers first began teaching this unit, we had a limited number of novels from which our students could choose. Past practice found the LA teachers spending time combing through internet searches for historical fiction novels to add to our repertoire.
Last year, upon finishing our unit, I encouraged my students to do a bit of searching on their own to find a historical fiction novel to use for their independent reading and to report back to me any titles they found to be outstanding. I had a few students take me up on this challenge, and I have spent some time reading their recommendations over the past few months. One novel that a student had deemed a worthy read was Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
Set in a small college town in Ohio, the novel tells the story of an Asian-American family in the 1970s. The story begins with the death of Lydia, the 16-year-old middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. Lydia’s body is found at the bottom of the lake, leaving the family struggling to find out the how and why behind their beloved Lydia’s death.
The elder Lees meet and fall in love in college. After a whirlwind love affair, Marilyn becomes pregnant forcing her to leave her dreams of becoming a doctor behind to marry James and begin their family.
When her children are of school age, Marilyn decides to attempt to return to her dreams and disappears from her family to re-enroll in college. She does not tell her family of her plans and just leaves them behind with no word as to where she is.
James and the children are distraught over the disappearance of Marilyn. All three of them are struggling to adjust to life without the matriarch of the household. During this difficult time, Lydia makes a silent promise to herself that if her mother comes home, Lydia will be the perfect child and do whatever her mother asks of her.
Marilyn takes ill during finals week and finds herself in the emergency room being told she is pregnant. She tells the nurse to call James and returns to her family. As time moves along, Marilyn becomes set upon recreating her dream of becoming a doctor in her daughter Lydia. She is so determined that Lydia will do and become everything that Marilyn didn’t. Lydia goes along with her mother’s dreams because that silent promise she made years ago lurks in the back of her mind.
James has his own hopes and dreams for Lydia based upon his own regrets from life prior to meeting Marilyn. James never quite fit in as a child due to his Chinese heritage. He always stood out in the posh school he attended and was always on the receiving end of racially charged pranks and bullying leaving him friendless. For this reason, James also puts pressure on Lydia to fulfill his hopes for her to be popular with her peers.
Lydia’s siblings, older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah, are growing up in the shadow of the hopes and dreams their parents have for Lydia. Nath dreams of attending college to study astronomy unbeknownst to his parents who are truly surprised when he is accepted to Harvard. Hannah is always hiding in the background observing the interactions of her family.
All of Lydia’s life, Lydia’s parents are consumed with what they feel were their own missed opportunities. Could her death have been a suicide from all of the pressure, or was there a link to her death with the local town bad boy with whom Lydia had recently begun a relationship? What secrets was Lydia hiding from her family? Will the family ever really know how Lydia came to be at the bottom of the lake? Can they recover from her loss and be able to resume a normal life without her?
Everything I’ve Never Told You is keeps the reader engaged until the very end. It is a novel that high school readers will find captivating. They will find themselves able to relate to Lydia’s plight and that of her siblings. Students will find themselves able to relate to the Lee children’s insecurities when it comes to making friends and the pressures faced in life. They will learn what life was like for a bi-racial family in the 1970s and will find themselves feeling empathy toward the characters and their struggle to just be like everyone else.
Sharon Williams is an 8th grade teacher at Springton Lake Middle School in the Rose Tree Media School District. She is a 2015 PA Writing and Literacy Project Fellow.