Before the Ever After is a beautifully written middle-grade novel about a 12-year-old boy whose father, a professional football player, is suffering from CTE. The book occurs in a time before anything was widely known about CTE and its effects on many athletes. Zachariah, or ZJ, is in the dark about what’s happening to his father, and so is his mother. They keep waiting for a cure, for things to go back to normal.
What really shines in this story are the memories ZJ shares of his father and their time together, about writing and singing songs together, about naming the trees in their yard, and about how his father taught him it was okay to cry. It’s written in verse, and it describes elements I’ve seen many families go through as a family member suffers from memory loss and dementia. Only ZJ is just a child, and his father is his world.
Football is a guilty pleasure for me. I enjoy the game, but I’ve soured on it in recent years, from the put-downs of racial protests, to the way the league protects owners charged with racism and harassment. And maybe most of all, for its failure to care for its players after they leave the sport. I know that helmets have gotten more protective and the rules have been changed to minimize head to head collisions. But I still don’t trust the NFL to provide proper medical treatment and I don’t trust teams to make decisions in the players’ best interests.
So this book is a somber reminder of the costs of this sport, and others. Would ZJ’s father have done anything differently if he’d had any idea? At least today’s players are aware of the costs. They can retire earlier, and stay out of the game longer when injured. And maybe when they see the signs of CTE they respond earlier – but there’s no cure. And it isn’t just memory loss and headaches – CTE causes these players to hurt themselves and the ones they love.
I loved the way Woodson told this story through the eyes of a child, alternating from great sadness and confusion, to happy days with friends or just eating maple pancakes. You really get the sense of how a child’s world can spin from extreme to extreme.
The audiobook narrator, Guy Lockard, was excellent. I highly recommend the audiobook, although just as with the works of Elizabeth Acevedo, I think I missed a lot by not seeing the verse laid out on the page.
Though it’s a very sad read, it’s a beautiful book in every way. And even though it’s a middle grade novel, it never felt young to me. I just felt like I was right there.