Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Growing Up IV: Jack's Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year by Jack Gantos

Jack Henry is off again on another funny-sad year, this time in Barbados, where his screwball dad hopes to make a million in construction.

The story begins as Jack's father gallantly rescues a British honeymoon couple from the raging surf. Pumped up by his heroic status, Jack, Sr., challenges Jack to conquer his fear of horses and assigns little brother Pete to "help" with the quest. Although Jack succeeds in taking a turn on the hotel's meanest mount, Pete manages to get Jack seriously kicked in the head in the process. Other insults to Jack's person and ego follow, as he chases beheaded chickens for their cook, gets blood poisoning and winds up painted with gentian violet, and is forced to try to make friends under cover of darkness to hide his all-over purple hue.

Jack's ever present journal fills with hilarious and sometimes scary entries as Jack falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with a rich girl who disdains his "immaturity," searches for a missing boy who is found dead beneath his favorite movie house, and tries to make a bundle by becoming joint owner of a fighting gamecock with his dad's hopelessly hooked gambling buddy. As in the other Jack Henry books, Jack takes the eccentric characters who pass through his life with humor and a remarkable ability to ricochet through bizarre events without losing his good nature.

Most of Jack's dilemmas arise from the conflicting advice his dad loves to hand out and the risky behaviors he often exhibits. A man of considerable energy and courage, his grip on reality sometimes seems a bit tenuous. Here's the wisdom of Jack, Sr., when he and Jack's mom return from a near death experience at sea:

"How was it?" I asked. I wanted to know all the scary details. I was hoping he had a couple gruesome stores to tell me.

"Man against the sea," he said gruffly. "And man won."

"I mean, how'd you get a hole in the boat?"

"We hit a floating coconut tree and it stove in the hull."

"Oh." I thought it might be more frightening.

"I'd like to know who threw that coconut tree into the ocean," he said angrily. "Absolutely irresponsible."

I guessed that it was possible that some nut threw a tree into the ocean, hoping it would sink a boat. But it seemed more possible that it had just been washed off the shore by waves. "Could have been an accident," I ventured.

"There's no room for accidents on the ocean, son," he replied. "It's a serious world out there."

As cane fires spread through the island, Jack, Sr., admits that the family is bankrupt, and Jack watches their cat Celeste and dog BoBoII loaded up by the Humane Society and taken away. As their plane spirals up over the island on the way back to Florida, Jack looks back on the island and on his year:

Once we were up in the air I looked out the window. The sugarcane fires were still glowing. As we traveled farther away I thought Barbados would look frightening, as if we had just escaped a burning ship. But I was wrong. The fires stretched from coast to coast like party lights strung across the deck of a beautiful luxury liner. It wasn't the island that was sinking. It was us. The plane banked to the west. I looked out the window. The island was gone.

Luckily for his many fans, Jack's Power is a pleasant vacation interlude which prefaces his next mainland adventure at his new school, Sunrise Junior High School, which Gantos points out ironically is a slightly refurbished state prison. In the final book in the Jack Henry series, our hero tries to pass seventh grade at last and get through the coming throes of adolescence.

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