Published January 2010 by Viking (a Penguin imprint)
I’ve already told you how funny this book is and how much I loved it despite the fact that I really shouldn’t have, so I figured it’s time to round out the conversation and tell you just a little bit more about Josh Sundquist’s Just Don’t Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness, and Made it Down the Mountain in case you’re not quite convinced.
A basic blurb about Just Don’t Fall will tell you that it is Sundquist’s memoir of losing a leg to cancer at age nine and going on to become a Paralympic skier and motivational speaker. What it won’t tell you is that this is not your typical feel-good cancer survivor memoir. Sunquist writes in first-person, present tense (telling us what is happening rather than what did happen), which gives the book a powerful sense of immediacy and pulls the reader right into the moment with him. When Sundquist sits in his parents’ minivan, parked in their driveway after just arriving home from an outing, and hears that his leg will have to be amputated, he cries. And then everything is quiet.
This quiet is so loud that I think I will always be able to remember it in my brain.
He struggles to make peace with the upcoming amputation, alternating between determination to survive, live, and FINALLY get a sports uniform his parents will allow him to wear to church on Sundays (Sundquist is envious of friends who get to play on travel soccer teams and wear their jerseys to services) and disbelief that it is really going to happen, that he will wake up and his leg will be gone.
But the cancer and amputation—and Sundquist’s inspiring resilience—, while providing and impetus and frame for this memoir, are but a piece of what makes it wonderful. Sundquist’s conservative Presbyterian parents homeschool him and his siblings, and Sundquist recalls other people’s endless curiosity upon learning this.
Then they always want to know why you are homeschooled, so you tell them it’s because your parents want to protect you from the dangerous things in public schools, like drugs, gangs, and the Theory of Evolution.
There are many similar chuckle-worthy moments in Just Don’t Fall, and they come full circle when the very sheltered Sundquist succeeds in convincing his parents to let him go to public school and is shocked beyond words when he survives the entire first day without being offered drugs or attacked by gang members. When a fundraising letter he sends to community members becomes profitable and allows him to leave home for ski training, Sundquist’s first encounters with his new instructors, who drink, smoke, and curse freely, are equally hilarious and are presented in passages that just beg to be read aloud. (Ask my husband. I was laughed until I cried while reading them to him.)
Motivation and determination are major themes of Just Don’t Fall, and Sundquist handles them well, making his story touching and inspiring but also realistic and remarkably unsentimental. He recalls his family’s devastation and heartbreak alongside warm memories of the community that supported him. He recounts discovering motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and reading How to Win Friends and Influence People before going to public school, but he also shares the deep depression he experienced during college (“I hate my life, I hate being inspirational. I hate being mature for my age. I hate all that shit.”) and the pressing urgency of feeling that he did not have time to fail.
Woven throughout the narrative are memories of universal growing-up experiences—crushes, dating, sitting by the phone just hoping for that call to come, existential questioning—that make Sundquist, with his endearing persistence and amusing penchant for motivational speaking, easier to relate to. This is a story of struggle, triumph, anger, and hope, and it is a portrait of not just a remarkable young man but a family that pulled together when many fall apart.
I really did not expect to love this book, but Sundquist strikes the perfect note, keeping the sentimentality, religious reflection (which I understand some people enjoy but is SO not my thing), and hand-wringing to a minimum and balancing the dark moments with wonderful levity that will make Just Don’t Fall appealing to a much wider readership.
Before I wrap up, a few quotes I want to share to give you a better feel for Sundquist’s voice.
Why do doctors always have to ruin perfectly good fruit by comparing it to life-threatening malignancies? Before last week, I liked cantaloupe. It’s juicy. It’s sweet. It tastes good. But not anymore thanks to this association. Doctors should compare cancer to things that are not juicy and sweet, things you wouldn’t otherwise think of eating. “It’s the size of a dead mouse” or maybe “about as big as one of those pickled pig’s feet that float in jars of vinegar in sketchy gas stations.” That would be way better.
And this one, perfect for bibliophiles.
Mom said this is the best and cheapest way to solve the problems in your life: come to the library and check out all the books about your problems and read them.
I’m giving Just Don’t Fall an enthusiastic 4.75 out of 5, and I don’t think I’ll soon forget this story, the first one that ever made me find a motivational speaker endearing.