Elevate Difference

Louder Than Words: Chelsey

Chelsey is a thin volume dealing with a heavy topic: it's the first-person account of a teenager in Cincinnati, Ohio who loses her father to violence and her journey of grief, adjustment, and self-discovery over the ensuing few years.

Chelsey Shannon is a week shy of her fourteenth birthday when she learns that her father, who'd been working and vacationing in the Caribbean with his girlfriend, has been shot and killed by a would-be burglar who broke into his hotel room. Having lost her mother to cancer when she was five, she suddenly finds herself alone. She is not literally alone—she is blessed with a large family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—but in a very real sense she is. As she says, “I was no longer anyone's child.” The senseless violence of her father's death a day before his return home only compounds her grief. Having been raised solely by her father most of her life, the two were extremely close.

We follow Chelsey as she moves in with her Aunt Chris. While she loves her aunt, it is not an easy fit for either of them. Chelsey can't help but feel like a burden while her aunt, whose adult sons have moved out of the house, has a hard time getting used to having a teenage girl in her care. Chelsey's biracial identity (her mother was white and her father black) also makes her feel out of place when living with her white aunt. In addition, Chelsey struggles to fit in at her new high school, the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Although she has chosen to attend the school herself, the shy and still mourning adolescent has a difficult time making friends.

One of the most poignant sections of the book is when, several months after moving in with her aunt, the family decides to sell the house where Chelsey and her father lived and she must say goodbye to the place where she and her father shared so many memories. Another is when her father's girlfriend recounts in detail the events of her father's last evening. The failure to apprehend her father's murderer makes closure that much harder. As she writes in a letter to her father read at a memorial service a year after his death, “What hurts the most is that you were killed, and that no one has been caught so far.”

There is no single cathartic moment of healing for Chelsey, but rather a gradual acceptance and healing. She slowly opens up to her classmates and forms new friendships, spurred in part by her participation in creative writing programs and the Young Women's Feminist Leadership Academy. She discusses her evolving spiritual and religious identity, which culminates in her rejection of Catholicism and identification as an atheist.

While we can all imagine the horror of losing a parent at a young age, particularly through a violent act, Chelsey is successful because it follows the protagonist through the aftermath of this life-altering event to show how her irrevocably changed life continues. Bravo to Chelsey Shannon for baring her innermost emotions in this honest and courageous memoir.

Written by: Karen Duda, December 12th 2009