Fleeing her abusive boyfriend, Kate and her son, 7-year-old Christopher, leave their home in Michigan for the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Though their means are beyond meager, Kate, a loving, nurturing mother, sacrifices to make sure Christopher attends a good school and has everything she can possibly provide.
Temporarily living in a hotel, Kate finds work as Christopher navigates his new school, struggling with a learning disability and the stigma of poverty. A pleasant boy, Christopher is befriended by other young outcasts, who provide much needed support from the constant bullying he suffers at school.
One day, while waiting for his mother to pick him up, a face in the clouds that he has been noticing for several days appears once more overhead, this time seeming to interact with him. Christopher follows it into the woods where he hears a child’s voice calling from within. Lured into the woods, Christopher’s not seen or heard from for six days.
When Christopher finally emerges from the Mission Street Woods he is a changed little boy. After a brief hospitalization, Kate’s relief turns to fear as the gravity of their situation sets in; the financial impact of her missed work, Christopher’s inability to remember anything from the last six days, the worry that Christopher is developing the symptoms of mental illness that took his father away from them years earlier.
Nearly crushed beneath the weight of life’s new burdens, fortune finds mother and son. Christopher’s learning problems suddenly resolve and a celebratory lottery ticket brings the family out of the red and into a home of their own, right on the edge of the Mission Street Woods. Just as it seems that their luck is turning, the significance of his disappearance comes to the surface. Once again a voice draws Christopher into the woods but instead of vanishing, Christopher is instructed to build a tree house. He obliges the voice, even recruiting the aid of his new group of friends, lying to his mother and forgoing sleep to work overnight. Trusting the voice of “the nice man” who lives in the woods, Christopher builds furiously with the understanding that his work is protecting the world from a sinister force.
Soon plagued by fatigue and headaches, Christopher becomes increasingly ill, concealing his decline as to continue his mission. Unbeknownst to him, the voices and fever that have been plaguing him have spread like a contagion throughout the town of Mill Grove affecting nearly all who live there. Kate, terrified over the changes in her son and able to resist the epidemic corrupting her community, begins to understand what is happening. Finally realizing the true evil spreading from the woods behind their house, the fate of everything and everyone they know lies within Christopher and his mother.
“Imaginary Friend” is the second novel by Stephen Chbosky, published 20 years after his debut, cult favorite “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
Though truly tense and terrifying, this book is so much more. Parallel to the story of good versus evil is one of forgiveness and love, particularly that between mother and child. The story of Christopher and Kate, as well as the townspeople suffering around them, is as much about healing as it is of horror.
Running from the past and continuing unhealthy patterns, suffering guilt and shame over misdeeds and circumstances out of our control only deepens our wounds and projects our self-hatred onto the world around us. In “Imaginary Friend” we see, as does our young protagonist and all the residents of Mill Grove, that the path toward healing is love, and sometimes that can be a scary, scary thing.