Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Always the Best: Million-Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica

This was always the best of it for Nate Brodie, when he felt the slap of the ball in his hands and began to back away from the center, when he felt as if he could see the whole field and football made perfect sense to him.

Sometimes when you were thirteen, nothing seemed to make sense, and the world came at you faster and trickier than flying objects in a video game.

It was never like that for him in football. Never.

On the field, Nate can depend on his throwing arm and his ability to make plays. Off the football field, life is coming at him too fast. His dad loses his big real estate job and now struggles to hold down two jobs, one managing a small sporting goods store. His mom takes two part-time jobs, both parents struggling to keep up their mortgage payments until they find a buyer for their house and downsize to a level they can afford. And his girlfriend Abby's vision is rapidly being lost to a congenital disease and her only alternative seems to be to transfer to the far away Perkins School for the Blind to learn to adapt to blindness while she can still see.

Then, while he is buying an autographed Tom Brady ball he's saved for for two years, Abby whimsically signs him up for a lottery for a chance to win a million dollars tossing a football through a twenty-inch goal at the Patriots' final game. When he wins the drawing and the chance to make that throw, Nate sees that success will solve a lot of the problems that are weighing him down.

But it's all a lot of pressure for an eighth-grader, and as the date of the big throw grows nearer and nearer, Nate sees his skills at quarterback falling away. His confidence in himself is shaken as he watches his parents lose hope in a faltering economy and promising artist Abby slip into depression over the loss of her sight. Nate begins to dread the throw even as he dutifully practices daily.

As always, Lupica's strong and realistic characterizations, his absorbing game play writing, and his theme that faith in yourself and in your teammates, family, and friends is a powerful force make this novel a page-turning good read for middle and young teen readers. Justifiably it can be said that this novel is a more than a few happy endings over the line, as virtually all of the main characters' problems are vanquished by the time the final chapter rolls around. Even Lupica cues us that he knows he's giving his readers the big Disney denouement:

"I couldn't have done it without you, Abs."

Now there were no tears, just a huge smile. "Like I don't know that," she said.

All of a sudden, he and Abby were alone at the 30-yard line, the two of them standing right on top of the SportsStuff logo.

Finally, the end of the movie.

[Fadeout] And although there are even more happy endings to come in the final chapter, still, Million-Dollar Throw (Philomel, 2009) is, for fans of battling ball teams and young love everywhere, another of Mike Lupica's football fables not to be missed.

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