Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Thing with Feathers: Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

So my father came home with his lunch pail in his hand and a bandage on his face and the last check he would ever see from Culross Lumber, and he looked at my mother and said, "Don't you say a thing." Mom jumped up from the table and brought over the plate she'd been keeping warm in the oven.

"It's not all dried out, is it?" he said.

"I don't think so,' Mom said.

"You don't think so," he said, and reached for the ketchup. He smeared it all over his meat loaf. Took a red bite. "We're moving," he said. "To Maysville. Upstate." Another red bite. Ballard Paper Mill has a job and Ernie Eco says he can get me in."

Ernie Eco," said my mother quietly.

"So it will begin all over again. The bars, gone all night, coming home when you're--"

"Which one of your sons will it be this time?" my mother said.

My father looked at me.

In Doug Swietock's own words, his father is a jerk, his oldest brother, somewhere in Vietnam, is an unwelcome subject, his older brother Chris, who steals his only joy, his autographed Joe Pepitone cap, is a jerk, and, as he ruefully admits to himself, he's well on his way to becoming one himself. Stuck in a tiny bedroom with his abusive brother in a house he names "The Dump," "stupid Maysville" has no promise for Doug, and his defensive attitude gets him in hot water at school right away.

But Maysville has its own promise, in the form of an understanding librarian who shows him the town's chief claim to fame, a first edition of Audubon's Birds of America. Doug is arrested by the plate on view, the Arctic Tern, and he feels a sudden connection to the bird and an unexpected urge to draw it himself, which Mr. Powell encourages. A chance meeting with a girl, Lil Spicer, brings a deepening friendship and a job as Saturday delivery boy for Spicer's Deli.

As Doug experiences developing relationships with the customers he sees each Saturday, his confidence grows, helping him to accept the encouragement of teachers at Maysville Junior High, where he overcomes his reading problem and discovers his abilities in math and science. Despite the open cruelty of his father, who has his chest tattooed with "Mama's Baby" for backing up his abused mother, Doug begins to see that there are better things ahead for him than following his father's path.

In Maysville there are a rush of personalities and experiences--the class study of Jane Eyre, Mrs. Windemere, the crusty old playwright who is turning the novel into a stage play and shares her weekly carton of ice cream with him, Mr. Ballard, the town's chief employer and beneficent dictator, whose summer picnic baseball trivia quiz Doug wins and who makes him a sort of protege, Mr. Powell, who introduces him to the meaning as well as the composition of art, even the coming Apollo moon landing which, with Audubon's birds, becomes the novel's central symbol.

Newbery author Gary Schmidt (for his companion book The Wednesday Wars) almost overloads this novel with the events and characters which together move Doug Swietock from proto-loser to winner, some of them bordering on the improbable, but which Schmidt ties together so compellingly that they seem improbably inevitable. Character and setting are so interwoven that the overlapping strands of plot build to a conclusion which leaves Doug Swietock grounded in a hard reality but one still with room for hope, okay for now.

A moving story which is hard to put down and harder to forget. Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now (Clarion, 2011) is forthcoming April 5.

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  • I'm so glad that this book won your favor because I really liked The Wednesday Wars and was looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for the well-written review!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:04 AM  

  • Whatever could be said, it's a book with a lot of heart!

    By Blogger GTC, at 9:05 AM  

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