Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Justice Must Be Served! Revenge of he Green Banana by Jim Murphy

Beginning with the first day of Kindergarten, Jim Murphy has had a talent for making himself persona non grata with the Sisters of Mercy who run St. Stephen's Elementary School. In fact, Jimmy is "blacklisted," with his deportment, or lack thereof, encased in a scarlet folder with his name prominent on the front. But this year, in sixth grade, he determines that things will be different. He chooses a seat, not with the usual suspects--Vero, Phillip, Iggy, and Mayor--but close to the front, near his new crush, Kathy Gaithers, whom he hopes to impress with his change of persona.

But his history has preceded him. His new teacher, the towering and imposing Sister Angelica Rose, has already prepared her deportment plan for James.

"I know who you are, Master Murphy," Sister Angelica said. She opened the drawer of her desk and pulled out a red folder, the name MURPHY was written in big, bold letters. A red folder with your name on it in big, bold letters is not a good sign, in case you haven't guessed. "All your previous teachers have told me about you and your"--she held up the folder and waved it around--"your various antics. I want you to know from the start that I will not tolerate any such behavior here. None. Am I clear, Master Murphy?"

Sister Angelica makes Jimmy move his desk to the back of the room, unfortunately where he cannot see his beloved Kathy from behind the wide back of the rotund Joey and within whispering distance of his former partners in crime. His hopes of reformation grow dim as Sister Angelica continues her intolerance of any deviation. She assigns her pet student, Ellen McDonald, to call Jimmy every night to coach him on his homework. The last straw comes when she makes him copy an assignment over one time for each misplaced or missing comma and misspelled word.

Jimmy vows revenge. Sister Angelica must be murderlated! His pals excitedly join the plot, even Al the Second Grader, who shares their lunchroom table. They concoct a wild plan involving a tripwire in the refurbished bowling lane at the back of the stage, rigged to drop a bag of flour on Sister Angelica when she ceremoniously bowls the first ball down the lane at the end of term program.

Jimmy's bad luck doesn't desert him. As punishment for one offense, Sister Angelica orders him to report to Sister Mary Brian. Puzzled, Jimmy finds her cheerfully rehearsing her second graders, a troupe of singing, box-stepping bananas, onstage for a rehearsal of the program.

"Children," said Sister Brian, suddenly very perky, "I believe that James Murphy here is the answer to our prayers."

"I believe we have found our Green Banana!"

Jimmy begins to understand that his penance is to waltz center stage in a second-grade musical, costumed as an enormous green banana. Suddenly his wildest visions of "murderlating" Sister Angelica become a clandestine scheme to humiliate his nemesis in front of the whole school and parents, too. Jimmy and his co-conspirators throw all their talents into their plot, aided by Jimmy's easy access to the stage and his friendship with the custodian Bernie.

Will Sister Angelica Rose get her comeuppance with a face-full of flour, in front of everyone? Will the Green Banana, despite all odds, have an attack of self-sacrificing remorse? Or will both events occur, more or less simultaneously? In his admittedly autobiographical novel of life in a 1950s parochial school, Revenge of the Green Banana (Hougton Mifflin Harcourt Clarion, 2016), author Jim Murphy sets his humorous coming-of-age story in a Catholic school where classrooms filled with sixty students require a strict discipline which some of the Sisters of Charity seem to take way too much pleasure in dispensing.

But to his surprise, Jimmy begins to see beyond the end of his own out-of-joint nose, as Ellen McDonald's assigned nagging pay off with higher grades and he gets a better understanding of his teachers, even giving aspiring coach Sister Angelica lessons on her jump shot. Middle readers will get a snapshot look at a well-meaning, but ill-fated protagonist and long-vanished school days, along with the poignant and somehow sweet first-person narrative of how the great St. Stephens Green Banana Caper went down. Despite the more than half-century elapsed since those days, middle-schoolers will find this one absolutely absorbing, with a preposterous premise and an all-too-true theme of growing up that goes down easy.

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