Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Turning Tides: My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath

This week our preacher, a fat old lady named Nellie Phipps, says from her pulpit that you ought to pray all the time, just about anything at all. It doesn't have to be sacred. And your prayers will be answered, she declares, your prayers will always be answered.

I pray for a hundred adventures.... And so I do and maybe it is because of this that it all happens.

Jane's life is as plain as her name--plain but perfect to her mind. She lives with her mother and brother and sister in a simple but comfortable house by the sea. A prize-winning poet, her mother feeds her family frugally on the fruits of the shore and woods--shellfish, berries, field greens--and although her material life is modest, Jane is mostly content.

But Jane is turning twelve years old, and her spirit is beginning to grow restless with her idyllic beach life. She realizes that she needs new experiences--adventures, as she calls them--and as high summer begins, so do her adventures.

First, the Reverend Nellie sucks her into Sunday afternoon Bible distribution in the countryside. Looking for a way to move her overstocked supply fast, Nellie cons Jane into climbing aboard a hot air balloon for a demonstration at a nearby festival and "accidentally" sets the craft free, calling out her instructions to Jane as the balloon begins to rise:

"Now you just let those Bibles out over the houses as you go by."

"Me?" I squawk.

"Don't you get it? The universe has led us here," says Nellie.

And that begins Jane's adventures, which multiply upon one another like incoming waves on the shore. Back on the ground, no thanks to Nellie, Jane is accosted by the angry Mrs. Gourd, who claims that one of the dropped Bibles has damaged her baby's brain and blackmails her and her friend Ginny into babysitting the entire Gourd litter so that their mama can take a waitressing job at the Bluebird Cafe. The Gourd children, faces constantly smeared with the mainstay of their diet, peanut butter and jelly ("their fruit," as Mrs. Gourd puts it), lead Jane into several other escapades, but her weekday job fails to free her from her Sunday adventures with Nelly Phipps. Nelly practices her "laying on of hands" talent on two ailing church ladies, and when a visit to a fortune teller forecasts great fame for Nellie's "gift," she leads poor Jane on a circumnavigation of the local lake seeking the "transparent poodle" (transporting portal) which she promises will take her powers to a higher level.

Meanwhile, three old boyfriends show up to visit her mother, and a brief remark to Jane tells her that one or more of these men may be her and her siblings' father. As the summer grows close to its end, Jane's misadventures cascade toward a climax as well: her brothers and sister drift out to sea on a raft Jane and friend Ginny have made for them to play in on the beach, and one of the possible fathers dies in an attempt to save them. Another potential "father," working on a local interest piece for a magazine, "seeds" the story with a gift of old-fashioned horehound candy which leads to the accidental death of one of the church ladies, and Ginny runs away to New York City. Finally the town doctor tells Jane that the Gourd baby got his inconsequential bruise from his mother's clumsiness, and Jane confronts Mrs. Gourd and resigns from her job as babysitter. Then Mr. Gourd tries unsuccessfully to abduct her and force her to take care of the kids, and Jane begins to wonder if her prayers for adventure have brought about this whole series of calamities. Finally she tells her mom the story of her summer, and Mom, totally in character as the poet mother, brings it all down to earth:

We all belong here equally, Jane," she says. "Just by being born onto the earth we are accepted and the earth supports us. We don't have to be especially good. We don't have to accomplish anything. We don't even have to be healthy."

I put my hands over my eyes and press the flesh back in hard. In relief it is melting off my bones. We sit there all through the twilight. I lean into my mother's side and cry.

Like Kevin Henkes Newbery Award-winning Olive's" Ocean , multiple award-winner Polly Horvath's My One Hundred Adventures (Schwarz & Wade, 2008) uses the constant changing of the ocean itself as a metaphor for a girl on the shore's edge of a turning tide in her life. Jane begins the telling her summertime story as a child, but by season's end she finds herself standing in a different sea. Horvath, Newbery Honor recipient for Everything on a Waffle, knows how to use a strong sense of place, eccentric characters, and beautiful lyrical prose to tell a memorable story of a girl on the edge of the adventure of life.

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