Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Two Worlds: Where I Belong by Mary Downing Hahn

I'm sitting at my desk, drawing on the back of my math worksheet, not even trying to solve the problems. What's the use? They'd all be wrong, and Mrs. Funkhauser will make some sarcastic remark about my inability to learn long division--as if I cared.

I look at the picture I've drawn of the Green Man. I just learned about him in a book of British legends. My Green Man is treetop tall and his face is framed with oak leaves. His wavy hair falls to his shoulders like mine.

Suddenly Mrs. Funkhausen is beside me. "What's this?" Her eyes are eagle sharp.

"Boys and girls," she says. "Look at this. Brendan Doyle thinks drawing pictures is more important than math."

For Brendan, drawing is more important than math, which he is no good at anyway. Drawing is a way out for him, that and escaping from his foster mother Mrs. Clancy to the woods whenever he can. It is a place where he can leave her "real life" and all her rules behind and be safe and alone in a world where he might see a unicorn or even the Green Man who takes care of the woods and its creatures. Brendan finds the tallest tree in the woods and builds a treehouse high up, sure that it will be a world where real life cannot reach him. He hopes he fails sixth grade. At least that will keep him out of middle school for one more year.

But when Brendan does fail and is forced to go to summer school, real life intrudes. A girl named Shea in the class follows him, finally managing to slip so quietly behind that she discovers his tree house and insists that she should be allowed to climb up to it and watch for unicorns with him.

"You and me, we're right for each other," she says. She turns those eyes on me full force. "See, what I know about friends is, you have to pretend to like what they like. But you, I don't have to pretend to like what you like, because I like what you like."

And then the Green Man comes. At least, Brendan and Shea believe he could be the Green Man. His beard and hair are long, with leaves caught in the mass of it, and he can appear and disappear in the trees soundlessly. He must be magical, although he says he's just a man, just an old man named Ed who lives in a hidden hut in the woods. But Brendan is sure that he's found someone from a world away from the real lifers back in the town.

But still, real life catches up with him. Brendan sees a gang of tough kids rob a store in the mall, and they beat him severely and one hacks off his long hair with a long knife to keep him quiet. Brendan tells the police and Mrs. Clancy that he doesn't know any of the gang who did it, but when they attack Ed and he dies in the hospital the next day, Brendan realizes that it's time to face up to real life, and with his friend Shea, he knows what he has to do.

Mary Downing Hahn's latest, Where I Belong (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2014), takes on an unusual character in Brendan, one whose life has forced him to rely on an imagination that has been both comforting and yet misleading. He sees that he is capable of succeeding in school when he has the right teacher, and he suddenly understands that the critical voice he hears in his head as Mrs. Clancy's is really his own creation, that just as his Green Man was really a kind old drifter, his foster mother is just a tired middle-aged woman who does the best she can and is as lonely as he is.

In this coming-of-age story, the outsider finally comes in out of the cold, into a new real life that offers what he needs most. Here Hahn, that veteran teller of ghost tales and creator of wispy spirits, dips less deeply into the supernatural, walking the fine line between the objective and the subjective mind in a way in which middle readers, standing so briefly on that boundary between childhood and maturity, will understand.

Other classic tales by Mary Downing Hahn include Wait Till Helen Comes: A Ghost Story, The Old Willis Place All the Lovely Bad Ones, and The Doll in the Garden: A Ghost Story.

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