What makes someone a hero, 12-year-old Danny Timmons wonders, and what makes them a coward? It’s 1943 in Foggy Gap, a small town in western North Carolina. Danny’s father is away, fighting in Europe, and Danny’s mother has taken over his father’s role as editor of the town newspaper. She’s also due to give birth soon. As if all this wasn’t enough for one boy to handle, Danny’s friend, Jack Bailey, goes missing.
Ali Standish’s Yonder follows Danny’s search for Jack, whom Danny has idolized ever since Jack jumped into a flooded river to rescue young twin girls. Jack’s mother is dead, and his World War I veteran father physically abuses him, so Jack has gotten by with help from Danny’s parents as well as from Lou Maguire, Danny’s former best friend. In happier times, Lou shared her love of Nancy Drew mysteries with Jack and Danny. Now, despite the difficulties between them, Danny and Lou team up to investigate Jack’s disappearance.
Yonder invites readers into a multilayered story that frames Danny’s cares and concerns on the World War II homefront as a microcosm of much larger events happening in the world. The story moves back and forth in time as Danny’s memories illuminate past events as well as the tangled web of relationships among Foggy Gap’s residents. In addition to the Timmons, Bailey and Maguire families, readers also meet the wealthy Pittmans, whose son, is a cruel bully, and the Musgraves, Foggy Gap’s only Black family, who are driven out of town by Mr. Pittman.
Although the action ramps up as Danny and Lou’s search for Jack intensifies, the novel’s flashback scenes sometimes disrupt rather than enhance its narrative pace. Nonetheless, Standish manages the many threads of her story well, thoughtfully exploring a number of nuanced themes, including friendship, loyalty, prejudice and the horrors of war. Yonder is filled with ample period details, such as rationing, scrap metal drives and President Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” radio broadcasts.
Danny is an introspective protagonist who poses provocative questions about fear and courage. “If I didn’t stand up for my best friend,” he reflects, “how could I hope to stand up for a neighbor, or a classmate, or a stranger when the time came? If I couldn’t confront the small injustices, how could I fight the bigger ones?” These timeless questions will resonate with readers as they realize that they have more in common with Danny than they might have initially thought.