Okay: Our main character's parents died in what seems like a murder-suicide, and now he attends a school he can't stand while living with his grandparents and generally feeling woe is me about the state of affairs in his life. And guess what? The tone follows suit—and to this end, it's pretty freaking sullen most of the time. Check out this gem for an example:
Choice will. It can kill you. It is supposed to be what makes living worthwhile. It is what makes not living an option. (1104)
Not exactly happy go lucky, right? But on the flipside, Will doesn't seem totally convinced in the darkness he identifies in life. One of the main ways this is manifested is through his questions, though of course, in the end, after his revitalizing swim, he also seriously changes his tune to a happier one. For more on the glimmers of hope we see, hop on over to the "Characters" section to read up on Will and his endless line of questions.
Freewill is about a seventeen-year-old boy struggling with depression and grief about the death of his parents. It has heavy themes—death, suicide, mental health, to name a few—and they are filtered through the thoughts of a young adult who has some serious self-esteem issues and a lot of angst about his future. With its second-person narration style (read up on that in the "Narration Point of View" section), this book is all about being a teenager. And for all of these reasons, it's definitely in the young adult literature genre.
Though Will is in a bad place emotionally, though, he ultimately snaps out of it through woodwork, tough love, and threats that push him to his limit. And when he does, all of a sudden he stops feeling like a victim in his life, and starts to feel in charge of his own destiny. So though he's still seventeen when the book ends, we're calling this one a coming-of-age story as well. Will may not technically age much, but he sure does come into his own, even if it takes him most of the book to so do.
The title—Freewill—is a shout-out to the ending of the book. Well, really it's a shout-out to the whole thing, because Will is making choices the whole time. But it isn't until the end that Will checks back into his life and decides to take charge of it. He spends the whole book wallowing in self-pity and feeling like a victim of, admittedly terrible, circumstances. But after some tough talk from Angela, and facing down the reporter and the dude in the black jacket, Will finally realizes that—shocker—he's in charge of his own existence. He's had freewill all along.
Freewill ends on a surprisingly happy note. After a dark slog through Will's super depressed brain, he goes for a swim after showing the dude in the black jacket who's boss, and emerges reborn. (Have you checked out the "Symbols" section? Because we've got lots to say about this swim over there…) Suddenly Will realizes that he is in charge of his own life, that he is capable and loveable.
But the real ending happens when Will emerges from the water, in dripping wet clothes, and returns home to find his grandparents watching over him. Will says, "We never really put him to rest the first time […] we just put him away" (1484)—and when he does, we get the feeling that he might be referring to his father, whom he has finally laid to rest.
Most of Will's story takes place in and around a high school program for troubled kids, which the locals call "Hopeless High" (520). (Stay classy, locals.) Special Programs is intended to be "occupational therapy" (520), a place for Will and other kids to learn new skills, such as woodworking, but Will thinks of it less as therapeutic and more as the "rehab ward" for "dead-enders" (515), where everyone is "either stupid or dangerous or hiding out." What matters most is that Will doesn't want to be here, and also that he's been forced to after his parents' deaths.
What also matters, however, is that despite not wanting to attend this school and doing so against his will, is that Will is really good at woodworking. And since his statues contribute to both the mystery that unfolds in the story (they show up near dead bodes) and to Will's recognition that he has skill and value, though he might hate to hear it, this school is a major player in his life.
We don't know a whole lot else about Will's surroundings, other than that they seem to be relatively modern and that he lives near the ocean. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to visit it so often. To dig into the ocean in this story, though, hop on over to the "Symbols" section.
Will—the narrator of Freewill—is not in a good place. And since our experience of this book is filtered through his thoughts, this book can be a pretty tough read at times. More than that, though, this book is written in the second-person. What's that? Basically, it means instead of being filled with the words I (which we see in first-person narration) or he and she and so on (which we see in third-person narration), it's filled with the word you. Which is unusual.
And adding to the trickiness of this is the fact that Will isn't addressing us as readers. Nope, he's addressing himself. Inside his own head. Except when he's referring to other people as you, also inside his own head. So yeah, this book takes a bit of patience to get through.
But here's the pay-off: Will is intensely private. Like, he might as well wear a tee-shirt that says do not disturb across the front of it. So without getting to hang out inside his head, we'd have no idea just how tormented he is, or just how hard he tries. In other words, it's hard to get into his brain, but once we're in there, we get an intimate feel for just how difficult depression can be to navigate. And that, Shmoopers, is a pretty cool trick.
Welcome to Will's head, Shmoopers, a place filled with angst, uncertainty, depression, and other creepy crawlers. You might want to bring a flashlight because it gets pretty freaking dark in here, and it's where you're going to hang out for the entire book. By the time you're finished reading, your head will be as filled with Will's thoughts as this book is. It is all Will's thoughts, all the time—so much so, in fact, that sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's addressing himself mentally or filtering in someone else's speech.
Will is stuck, lost, paralyzed by grief and sadness, and the writing style reflects the paranoia, self-doubt, and obsessive thinking that happens when a person suffers from depression and isolation. Here's a glimpse inside our main man's brain:
Once again you are out there, out in the nowhere corridor with no one. Well, you are there, aren't you, so you are not quite with no one. Never alone if you are with yourself, isn't that right? (612)
Will's brain never quits—in the excerpt above, he's alone but then not alone—moving quickly through thought processes. Since he generally keeps to himself, it's great that we get to know his thoughts. Otherwise, we're not sure what we'd make of him… or how we'd come to do so.
Water figures prominently in Freewill. Here's a little round-up for you:
Noticing any patterns in there, Shmoopers? If you're thinking that water in this book is all about life and death, well, then pat yourself on the back because you are totally right. But let's dig a little deeper.
As the book opens, Will acts like a fish out of water. He's in a school he doesn't want to be in, living with grandparents he doesn't want to be living with, and generally filled with resistance to the life he's leading. By the end, however, Will emerges from the ocean a new man. Like, literally: He goes for a swim and has all kinds of epiphanies about his power and self-worth and how loveable he is (more on this in the "Characters" section). In other words, Will goes from a state of being checked out—a.k.a. kind of dead—in his life, to being reborn into it.
And that rebirth? It happens in water. It can be seen as a sort of baptism, then, an immersion in water that cleanses him and positions him in his life anew. And this is all the more fitting because in all the time Will feels lost in the pain of his parents' death (and remember: they died in water), water is the place he goes to for solace and to think. He feels at home at the shore, not in the house he shares with his grandparents. Water, then, despite its associations with death, stands as a beacon of hope for Will—until the day he dives in and finds his footing again.
What is wood? It's earthy, organic, and importantly for Will, malleable. For a boy who's drawn to the water (be sure to read up on this elsewhere in this section), wood brings him back to land, it grounds him.
Will is stuck in woodshop and claims he's not that into it. Okay, fine. But the thing is, he's making statues and such at rapid speed and can't seem to get enough. He's so lost in creating these wooden statues, in fact, that he loses track of time, which turns out to be very therapeutic. For a guy who needs to get out of his thoughts, which are mostly dragging him down, woodworking is just the kind of hands-on, brain-quieting thing he needs in order to get caught up in something else—in this case, the creative process. Like we said, wood grounds him.
Will's foray into wood also shows him what he's capable of. We're not trying to sound like Mr. Jacks suggesting that Will's purpose on earth is to make more gnomes—that is, unless Will wants to. Instead, our point is that Will's creations bring him closer to seeing and understanding the parts of himself that get buried under all his negative self-talk. He's so down on himself all the time, but his skill with wood is pretty much undeniable. He may not like it, but it's just true that he's good with wood—which means he's good at something in general.
Wood, then, is a sort of antidote for Will. It isn't necessarily what cures him—that's arguably water—but for a kid who's not so sure of his place on this earth, wood certainly seems like it helps keep him alive.
Will claims he doesn't like them. He says he'd rather be flying above stuff, which is why he'd rather learn to fly than to drive (213). "I'm a pilot, not a woodworker," (218) he claims. And there are ways in which this is true: Will is intensely withholding when it comes to his thoughts and feelings, and he's drawn toward Angela who is similarly hard to read. With so many hard feelings roiling beneath, it makes sense that Will would feel more comfortable with what's on the surface.
But the surface only gets you so far—remember, Will has a whole lot going on inside his head and heart—and to this end, he loves the tide, specifically because of what you can't see below the surface, which always holds the "possibility of something better than what you've got here right now" (481). In other words, with the surface, Will knows what he's dealing with—but below it is where possibility for something else resides. And that Will recognizes this and feels fond of this potential lets us know that he won't be able to stay closed off forever.
Will narrates his experience, but instead of speaking to us—which would give us a first-person narrator—he speaks to himself in a kind of inner dialogue. This book is all you, you, you, which means we are in the pretty unusual territory of second-person narration. It can be a little tricky to get into, especially since it's not something we encounter often as readers, but the perk is that it gives us a very real feel for what it's like to be Will. Plus, since he keeps so much to himself, it's a great way to access who he really is and what's really going on for him.
Will is depressed, still a bit shell-shocked by the death of his parents, and he believes that he is weak and doomed. He's also stuck in a school he hates, where he makes these wooden statue whirligigs that don't really make sense to him. Good times, these decidedly are not. Then Will meets Angela, a fellow outsider who's unafraid of standing up to him and calling him on his negative outlook and self-obsessions. And with that, the gloomy stage is set.
Will is losing his sense of time and falling deeper into depression. A few local teens are found dead and some of Will's creations are planted near their bodies. Police investigate to determine if it's murder or suicide, and Will is bullied by a reporter who wants to make Will look like the killer. Will and Angela's friendship grows, but his inability to communicate his grief and pain to her (or anyone else, for that matter) only leaves him feeling more isolated. In other words, things are getting kind of unbearable for our main man.
Will's unresolved guilt about his parents' unusual death leads him to feel erroneously responsible for the suicides. Will's grandfather is clueless about how to reach out to help his grandson, who is kind of losing it. Finally the two of them have it out and truthful feelings are exchanged. Cryptic taunting phone calls, oddly placed gnomes, and a threat to Angela's safety create a crisis, which prompts Will to take action. The turning point involves a little beach wrestling and few punches being thrown. Will no longer feels like a victim of his own life. Boo ya.
After standing up to the guys who want to frame him as the teen killer, and having a difficult heart-to heart with Pops, Will is feeling more powerful and better able to take on his own emotions and mental state. Those negative thoughts he lugged around in the beginning? Yeah, they're not welcome anymore.
Will finds some resolution and respite from his inner struggle by letting himself off the hook, and commits to having a better attitude on the home front with his grandparents. Yay.
Sometimes books do some of the dirty work for us, and Freewill is one such book. The three acts here neatly correspond to—you guessed it—the three sections of the book.
Will is depressed, still grieving the death of his parents and battering himself with his own negative self-talk, which only adds to his misery and his belief that he is weak and doomed. He's stuck in Woodshop, feverishly making these wooden gnome-like whirligigs that don't really make sense to him. In Angela, he meets someone unafraid of standing up to him and calling him on his negative outlook and self-obsessions. She's beautiful and doesn't feel sorry for him, both of which gives him some faith in humanity.
Will is losing his sense of time here, lost in his woodworking pursuits and his own head. A few local teens have committed suicide and some of Will's whirligigs are found near their bodies, prompting police to investigate. Will agrees to meet up with a reporter who is hungry for a good byline, though he winds up pretty irritated with the guy. On the upside, Will and Angela's friendship looks hopeful after the two are finally honest with each other.
Will's unresolved guilt—the byproduct of his parents' unusual death, which may have been a murder-suicide—leads him to feel erroneously responsible for the suicides. Pops is clueless about how to reach out to help his grandson, who is losing it a bit. They have it out, though, and some true feelings are finally expressed between them. All's not good in the hood, though, and Will receives creepy phone calls, finds his wooden statues in odd places, and eventually there's even a threat issued against Angela's safety.
Will snaps into action, though, meeting up with the creepy caller and wrestling him to show him who's boss. Good on ya, Will.
Will feels more powerful and way less like a victim after facing all of his fears. He is now able to let himself off the hook, and to stop feeling tortured by his own self-negation. Yay.