Eagan is a figure skater. She’s athletic and talented and headstrong. Amelia’s world is limited by her failing heart. No longer even able to walk up and down the stairs of her home, she is homeschooled and spends a lot of time in her room drawing horses. In a Heartbeat by Loretta Ellsworth opens with Eagan’s story. We know immediately she dies after hitting her head on a board while making a jump in competition. Amelia is the girl who receives her heart.
The storyline goes back and forth between Eagan, who is caught between life and death, and Amelia who is learning to live and experience new sensations every day because of the strong heart beating in her chest. We learn about Eagan’s life through her memories of the times before her death. Amelia starts to suspect that some of her post-operation dreams and her new interests may be those of the donor.
In addition to the stories of the two girls, In a Hearbeat is also about Eagan’s and Amelia’s relationships with their mothers. Eagan feels her mother is too controlling and too invested in how she performs on the ice. She wants time to skate, but she also wants to pursue interests off the rink. Amelia is totally dependent on her mother, who has gone to great lengths to care for her while she waited for a new heart. Now she wonders how she can start to assert her own independence.
Even if you have not known someone who has donated or received an organ, you will be moved by this story of life for one that is not possible without loss for the other. The book never falls into a preachy tone advocating for organ donation, but instead takes a look at what it means from the human and emotional point of view. And it does a good job of showing the different perspectives that teens and parents may have about life and death.
While the focus is mostly on the girls, since it’s told from their perspective, Ellsworth does a great job of showing the ripples of impact on both families and friends. There are many things for mother-daughter book clubs with girls 13 and up to talk about after reading In a Heartbeat. It should certainly open a dialogue between moms and daughters about organ donation and all it entails for both sides—feelings of hope, grief, guilt, and the possibility of a connection between donor and recipient. I highly recommend it.