Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Living in Two Worlds: What Came From the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

It was Tommy Pepper's twelfth birthday, and for it he had unwrapped the dumbest birthday present in the history of the entire universe: an Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box.

"Your grandmother probably waited in a very long line to get one of these," his father said. "And she sent it all the way from San Francisco. And it was expensive."

"All right," Tommy sighed. "I love it. I'm going to show it to all my friends. Pretty soon there's going to be all those grandmothers lined up to buy Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch boxes. They'll be beating each other with canes to get the last one."

But when Tommy Pepper reluctantly hauls out the unwanted lunch box in the cafeteria at William Bradford Elementary School, he finds something strange but wonderful.

There, among the spilled carrot and celery sticks, something... well, something glowed.

A chain, green and silver. Heavy.

Tommy dropped the chain over his head and tucked it beneath his shirt. It felt warm.

And with that simple action Tommy Pepper unknowingly accepts an awesome charge as the keeper of the Art of the Valorim, a defeated but mysteriously magical and wise people on another planet, one with two suns, in a "galaxy far, far away," as we say. And this responsibility to preserve the wisdom and art of these Valorim will bring Tommy into a battle which he cannot yet conceive.

Gary Schmidt, Caldecott-winning author, is known for his insightful realistic fiction, but in his latest, What Came from the Stars (Clarion, 2012), he undertakes a tour de force writing scheme in which alternating chapters depict both the story of how the last remaining Valorim sent the combined knowledge and art of his people across the universe to preserve it from the dark lord Mondus and his O'Mondim hordes, and the struggle of Tommy and his father to save their generations-old house, the one his dead mother loved above all else, from being taken as part of Lumpkin Associates' ocean-view condominium development.

The relentless convergence of the two worlds begins. Tommy suddenly recalls strange words he knows but has never heard and shows skills he had never possessed before. And when he constructs a sand sculpture of a creature, one he somehow knows is called an O'Mondim, and leaves it for the tide to take back into the ocean, days-long storms batter the town of Plymouth, blow out windows and doors, strewing the floor of the school with sand, and fill the town with the smell of decaying seaweed, a foreboding smell that Tommy knows is feh.

Soon Tommy's teacher disappears, and the charming but magical substitute Mr. Pilgrimway appears to take over, and gradually Tommy realizes that their strange substitute is his O'Mondim, and that somehow another world is impinging upon his own, that an evil force in the form of Mr. Pilgrimway wants to take the chain and its powers from him, and for reasons he can't quite comprehend, he knows that he must resist. As a rebellion led by the last living Valorim begins on that distant planet, the conflict in Tommy's world intensifies. Young Ealgar is sent from Valorim to retrieve the talisman that will restore their lost Art and to join Tommy in overcoming the O'Mondim in his own world.

Although Schmidt's protagonist is an apparently average sixth grader, grasping the full meaning of his adventures would seem to require a more mature reader. The alternating chapters from the Valorim chronicles read as if they were part of an Anglo-Saxon saga, a genre with which most sixth graders are unlikely to be familiar. There are hints of twentieth-century English and American fantasy classics--of Tolkien, Rowling, Lewis, Cooper, L'Engle--as well, knowledge of which is not required but which will add much to the reading of this one. But even read as a simple space alien invasion adventure, the building tension and the increasing convergence of the two parallel stories will keep readers going to the satisfying conclusion in which Tommy Pepper's two worlds inevitably collide.

It's a bit of a trick, juggling two such wildly different parallel narratives while bringing them toward their certain convergence and resolution, but Gary Schmidt's notable storytelling skills suffice to carry readers into a climax they will relish. "Schmidt brings high heroic fantasy and contemporary realism together in this novel." says Horn Book's starred review.

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