Sometimes a book can take you completely by surprise. The Only Alien on the Planet is one such book. I bought this on a whim, thinking the description sounded intriguing (though the title did initially put me off a bit). I started reading and found I couldn't stop until I had finished the book. I then went back and read it through again, not something I do very often.
The Only Alien on the Planet is the story of Ginny, a high school senior whose parents have decided to uproot and move from the West coast to the East coast, taking their three children with them (their eldest son Peter now being away at College). Ginny lived a comfortable and familiar life back home and is none to happy about having to start afresh in her last year of high school. She misses her elder brother whom she was very close to and resents her parents for the upheaval.
On her first day at her new school Ginny notices a strange, beautiful boy, who has been dubbed by his peers as 'the Alien'. Smitty Tibbs doesn't speak, he has never communicated at all with anybody, not since a near drowning accident when he was 2 years old. He seems to exist in a world of his own and does not interact with others though he is very intelligent, even considered a genius. He aces every written test at school. Ginny is intrigued by him but at the same time finds him unsettling. There is one other person at the school who shares Ginny's fascination - her neighbour Caulder, who instantly becomes her new best friend. Ginny is surprised to find the strange boy from school also lives next to her.
Caulder has always looked out for Smitty, protecting him from bullies at school. He sees the damaged boy as a friend, or at least as much a friend as he could be given the one-sided nature of their interactions. Caulder is convinced that hidden in there somewhere is a soul looking to be set free and he convinces Ginny to become involved in a scheme to open Smitty up. What starts as a simple request to Smitty from Caulder to help Ginny with her math homework becomes a plan to try and force him to interact, a series of seemingly harmless experiments designed to provoke some kind of emotional reaction.
Ginny begins to realize that there is a real person hidden behind the blank facade. She is concerned when she notices that Smitty does begin to become less detached but a lot of what they are doing seems to have a negative affect. Ginny is afraid that what they are doing is hurting him and urges Caulder to stop. However, it is through Ginny's actions that a true breakthrough occurs - but will this breakthrough set Smitty free or end up destroying him?
This was a truly engrossing story but not an easy one to read. Smitty is a tragic character and when you find out what caused him to turn out the way he did it is like a punch in the gut, it is honestly that heartbreaking. Even when he was remote and distant he felt like a real character and when he begins to break out of his protective shell, you see the kind and decent person that has been hidden away all these years.
Ginny is an interesting narrator in the sense that she is not always a likeable character. She views herself as being selfish and cowardly, and at times these traits do come through. However, this made her seem more real to me and I was always able to relate to her and see her point of view. It is Ginny who is the catalyst for Smitty's awakening but she is also reluctant to become involved as sees it as a responsibility and burden - something she might fail at which could lead to devastating results. She comes to care very much for Smitty and does end up helping him. He in turn helps her see her own worth and that she is strong and brave when it matters most.
Caulder was another interesting character though I did want to hit him upside the head a few times, especially in the scenes where he blindly blunders on not seeing that he is hurting Smitty and causing him to start to withdraw again. Nevertheless, his heart was in the right place and he is a good friend to both Ginny and Smitty.
I also liked Ginny's family even Peter, the eldest sibling who is never seen in the novel but whose influence is felt throughout. Her two younger brothers were also entertaining. Her parents were not physically present throughout the majority of the novel (being busy setting up their new business) but when they were around they were presented as supportive and loving. It's nice to see a depiction of a non-dysfunctional family, which can be a rarity in ya fiction.
Overall this was at times a disturbing but always engrossing read. It won some awards when it was first released in the 90's and I can see why. Well-written, with deeply drawn, realistic and sometimes flawed characters, this is a story that will stay with me for some time.