The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer
Delacorte Press, 2006
4 out of 5
Vernon Culligan had been dead to the town of Draydon, Virginia, so long that when the crusty Vietnam vet finally died, only one person noticed. Twelve-year-old Gabe grew up in the foster care system until a social worker located his Uncle Vernon two years before. When he comes home to discover that his uncle has died of a heart attack, he's terrified of going back into the system--so he tells no one. The next day, he discovers a strange not in his mailbox: I have a secret. Do not be afraid. And his uncle's body is gone.
Thus begins a unique correspondence destined to save the two people that depended on Vernon for everything. Through flashbacks, we learn about Gabe and Vernon's relationship, and how finding each other saved them both from lives of suffering. But eventually, Vernon's death will be discovered, and how will Gabe and the mystery note writer learn to move forward? The Mailbox is not a story about death--though it begins with a death. It's also not a story about Vietnam vets, although the author works with Vietnam veterans and wrote this novel, in part, to illuminate their sacrifices and suffering. The Mailbox is a story about connections--about how two people in need can save each other.
The beginning of the novel caught me off-guard because Uncle Vernon speaks with a dialect. But like any other novel with dialect, it's easy to read once you get used to it. As the description says the story is about connections: Vernon and Gabe; Gabe and Webber; Gabe and Mr. Boehm; Vernon and the mystery writer. These characters are very believable and I liked getting to know them. Gabe is especially well-written and embodies not only the awkwardness of his age, but also the awkwardness (and occasional fear) of his situation.
There is a second plot line discussing Uncle Vernon service in the military. The majority of these scenes are revealed as Gabe's memories of living with his Uncle. It's both beautiful and sad. Unfortunately, this plot line is dropped during much of the action of the story; I actually forgot about Uncle Vernon's army days. But perhaps Gabe did too. A twelve-year-old isn't exactly going to dwell on his uncle's army days.
From my point of view, the only shortfall was the ending. It wrapped up a bit too neatly for my taste. It was not a bad ending, I'm just not big on perfection, especially in realistic fiction. It doesn't take away from the novel--in fact, the ending is one of two scenarios you hope for. It's just a personal preference. Overall, it's a great middle grade novel that I would definitely recommend.