Monday, July 13, 2009

Hardscrabble: Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen

The day I almost died, the sky was a bright, brilliant blue--a nice change from the rain earlier in the week.

Then the sun disappeared and something bounced off my head. The first thing I saw was the soccer ball, rolling away from me. The second thing I saw were three sets of big Nike-clad feet.

I looked up. Troy, Mike, and Josh were towering over me, blocking the sun.

"What's for lunch, Spambrose?" asked Mike, who was what some people would call stocky and I would call fat. He had curly brown hair and a permanent scowl, and his jeans hung way below his waist, exposing a good four inches of his underwear, which I understood was supposed to look not dorky but cool.

"Your lunch sucks," Mike said.

"Hey, Damnbrose, is it true you're allergic to peanuts?" asked Troy

With that privileged information, Mike, Troy, and Josh, whom Ambrose secretly calls "the three Stooges," raise their level of bullying from spiking him in the face with every ball allowed on campus and frequently flushing his lunch down the boys' room toilets. This time they stick a peanut inside his sandwich, and Ambrose has only a few moments before he slips into unconsciousness.

"A peanut. Well, to be accurate, half a peanut. The other half was in my digestive tract, and I was going into anaphylactic shock. I caught sight of Troy, Mike, and Josh doubled over with laughter as they watched me. Just before everything went black, I pictured the headline of my obituary. FRIENDLESS NERD KILLED BY PEANUT."

After a few days of hospitalization, Ambrose survives, but the harried middle school principal suggests that he finish the year as a correspondence student, and his English professor mother readily agrees, shifting her teaching load to night classes to be home with Ambrose during the day.

Self-professed nerd Ambrose is used to being an outsider. His mom, ever searching for a tenure-track job, has moved him from Edmonton to Regina and now to Vancouver, finding work as an adjunct but never a permanent position, and Ambrose has been the friendless new kid so many times he has basically given up trying to fit in. And he's not the fitting-in kind. Fatherless since his dad died of a sudden aneurysm just before his birth, his chief passion is for scrabble, in which he routinely slaughters his mom.

At first the homeschooling routine is a welcome relief from dodging the likes of Mike, Josh, and Troy, but after a couple of months, Ambrose becomes terminally bored. His long evenings in front of a television set which only gets the CBC channel are enlivened only by invitations to escape his mom's tuna casseroles for delicious (and peanut-free) Greek dinners with the warm and affectionate Economopoulis family, his upstairs landlords. There he meets their youngest son, Cosmo, also a Scrabble devotee, and Ambrose is intrigued to learn that the young man Mrs. E. calls "a good boy" has just been released from prison.

When he sees a poster advertising the West Side Scrabble Club's weekly meetings, he knows he's got to be there. But he needs someone to drive him in order to get there and back before his mom arrives home from her Wednesday night classes. It looks like Cosmo is his only hope. Cosmo declines the honor, but when Ambrose sees Cosmo cleaning his car, he heads outside to try more begging, just in time to hear a tough-looking guy apparently trying to shake Cosmo down for some money he owes. Ambrose quickly improvises a solution to both their problems.

"Uncle Cosmo?" That was me talking. The words just popped out of my mouth.

Cosmo and Silvio turned to look at me.

"You ready to take me to Scrabble Club? It starts in a half an hour."

Cosmo was so surprised, he didn't answer.

"You got a nephew?" asked Silvio.

"Come on, Uncle Coz, we're going to be late."

Cosmo found his voice. "Sure, buddy, Hop in."

Ambrose finds his soulmates in the Scrabble fans at the club, and Cosmo is smitten with the beauteous Amanda who directs the club activities. It's a deal made in heaven, except for the fact that Ambrose has to keep the fact that he's hanging out with an ex-con strictly secret from his overprotective mom, who has forbade him to even speak to Cosmo.

Ambrose blossoms as his Scrabble skills improve and he is befriended by the colorful but benevolent Scrabble lovers he meets there, and as the romance between Cosmo and Amanda blooms, and his purported "Big Brother" Cosmo invites him along on dates to impress the socially conscious Amanda, Ambrose finds out what it's like to actually have a social life. Everything is going perfectly until Ambrose has to find a way to make a Saturday morning tournament without giving away the whole deal to his mother, and his whole carefully crafted Scrabble scam begins to fall apart.

Nielsen, who began as a writer for the television series "DeGrassi Junior High," shows in Word Nerd that she knows how to craft an authentic, if quirky, adolescent voice, and her Ambrose is certainly a memorable character, one who is both the classic outsider and comfortable in his own skin. The rest of the characters, from his hard-pressed and hovering mother to the good-hearted Cosmo, trying to make a new life for himself, are so engaging that it's hard to say goodbye to them when the book comes to its satisfying conclusion. As reviewer Claudia Mills puts it, "Nielsen delivers a tour de force of a ‘tween novel, complete with page-turning, heart-in-your-throat suspense, a cast of delightfully individuated and appealingly eccentric characters and, most of all, Ambrose's utterly distinct, wry, wise, naive, and altogether hilarious voice."

Young adult readers, especially boys, will find spending time with Ambrose will certainly extend their vocabularies and possibly extend their understanding of what's going on inside the heads of those nerds in the knockoff Nikes in their own schools.

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