Thursday, September 05, 2013

When I'm Sixty-Four: Heaven Is Paved with Oreos by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch

Darling Sarah!

This journal is for you--isn’t it glorious? I saw it & thought of you instantly! Now you can record all your thoughts & your genius & your experiences-to-come! (And are you going to have experiences!) Someday, when you’re a creaky sixty-three-year-old granny, you’ll read this & remember every one of your marvelous adventures. I am so excited! Have fun writing!

Peace forever—Z

At 14 Sarah can't really imagine having adventures worth  writing about. She and her "pretend" boyfriend Curtis Schwenk hope to turn the skeleton of a calf (now buried in his pasture) into  their first high-school-level state Science Fair Award-winning project, but Sarah is not sure that articulating a skeleton is what her ex-hippy grandmother Z. has in mind for that journal.

In fact, Sarah isn't even sure that Boris the calf is even going to be reassembled.  She and Curtis, who share a fondness for science (and maybe for each other) had decided on their "Brilliant Outflanking Strategy," acting as if they were girlfriend-boyfriend so people would stop asking them if they were, and amazingly it has seemed to work.  It allows them to meet and talk about what they like, go for ice cream together as friend-friend, and greet each other with their special "palm salute," If it weren't for her classmate, Emily, who clearly has her eyes on Curtis, Sarah would be content with their arrangement.  But lately Curtis is even quieter than usual, until at last he does have something to say:

"I want a real girl friend." He wouldn't even look at me.

"Emily," I said.

There was a long silence. "No... but Emily doesn't lie to people. I like that."

"We're not lying," I said finally. "We're outflanking. What's wrong with that?"

"Everything," Curtis said. "And if you don't see that, maybe we shouldn't be doing this anymore. This whole...thing."

Before Sarah can even decide how she feels about Curtis' announcement, Grandma Z drops a bombshell.  She wants to go to Rome, which she visited as a college student, to finish the pilgrimage to the seven churches of Rome she had begun, and she wants Sarah to be her "pilgrim lady companion." Sarah is both intimidated and intrigued with the idea of having her own experiences to write about, and she leaves for Rome, hoping, but without complete success, to forget about Curtis during her adventure.

Rome is an experience, very different from Red Bend, Wisconsin.  Sarah loves her "coffee juice," cappuccino with milk; she doesn't like the cooked egg in the middle of the pizzas: and she loves the colorful old structures, the dark stone churches, and the murals and sculptures inside. But with the pilgrimage to six of the seven churches done, Grandma Z seems to go off the rails.  She spends one day just lying in bed, so that Sarah has to venture out on the Roman streets alone to bring back food. Then, on their last day, Z's sixty-fourth birthday, she insists on sitting beside the Spanish Steps for hours, seemingly just watching the people passing by. She ignores Sarah's pleas to see the last church, and on the way back, she begins to weep and doesn't stop.

Apparently, there is something more than birthday blues going on, a significant story, one of Z's "experiences" formerly unknown to Sarah. And when Z reveals her story, it is one that alters Sarah's understanding of her family and of the truth, even with Curtis, Sarah has that "experience" worth filling her journal, and something to think about as she goes on to high school and what she will make of her life.

Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of the celebrated and best selling Dairy Queen and its two sequels, returns to the dairy community of Red Bend, Wisconsin, in her forthcoming Heaven Is Paved with Oreos (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), with another down-to-earth but totally absorbing protagonist in Sarah Zorn. Indeed, Murdock brings back D. J. Schwenk, not a beauty queen, but the super-sized athletic heroine and Curtis' big sister whose court is now the basketball sort, to give Sarah some hard-won advice on families and boyfriends and being true to herself as well.  Murdoch is the kind of author with that ability to get the reader inside her quiet but unforgettable characters, to live along with them as the future rushes toward them.  Like D.J. Schwenk, Sarah Zorn is good fictional company for young adult readers trying to figure out what is true and what is good in their lives.

Catherine Gilbert Murdoch is also the author of two wonderful comedic fantasies of the fractured fairy tale persuasion, both with wise and witty teen characters, Princess Ben and Wisdom's Kiss,

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