When 13-year-old Olivia climbs aboard her aunt and uncle’s RV with her prized camera and her 16-year-old sister, Ruth, she’s both excited and trepidatious. She has two big plans for this trip: first, to dig up a time capsule that she and Ruth buried in California before moving away three years ago; and second, to surprise Ruth by revisiting the places where they took photos together during their cross-country move to Tennessee, photos of them having a blast and doing the silly things sisters do, before Ruth started sliding into what Olivia has dubbed “The Pit,” a difficult and ongoing experience with depression.
Although Ruth has changed since their last trip together, Olivia is still optimistic about her plans. After all, “who wouldn’t be excited about a cross-country road trip in an RV? Digging up buried treasure? And exploring pirate ships?” Ruth, for one. She’s acting distant, hooked up to her old iPod at all times, her energy and enthusiasm lagging. Olivia feels responsible for her older sister, and she tries everything to pull Ruth out of “The Pit.” As they travel across the country, Olivia struggles to understand that she can’t take responsibility for her sister’s mental health or happiness.
Author Sarah Allen’s second book, Breathing Underwater, uses accessible yet lyrical language to depict Olivia’s attempts to recapture the joyful memories she and Ruth shared in the past. Olivia’s first-person perspective sheds light on the swirling mix of love, guilt and responsibility that she feels for her sister. It also allows Allen to sensitively describe what depression looks like when it’s experienced by a young person, as well as the impact it can have on their family. Notably, Allen offers no quick fixes and no saccharine, orchestrated happy ending. Olivia cannot heal her sister, but the girls do find a way forward together in a way that feels authentic and true to who they have each become.
Breathing Underwater is a lovely, important book that will be an especially welcome balm for any young reader who loves someone with mental illness. Olivia’s love for her sister shines through on every page and reinforces what a powerful thing it is to simply be there for someone.