Welcome to my blog. I often think I was born with a book in my hand. I have always enjoyed reading, but more importantly, talking about books. This blog is partially about reviews, but is really a forum to talk about what I'm reading, and express all of the thoughts and feelings that there simply isn't room for in a professional review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favourite books as you follow my reading journey.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Okay For Now: A Notable Tween Read

Fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck is starting eighth grade in a new town and a new house.  His only consolation is the Joe Pepitone jacket (a popular New York Yankee of the time) that Holling Hoodhood gives him before he leaves, and is as Doug explains, is the only thing he owns that hasn't been previously owned by someone else in his family.  His father is a bully, he has to share his room with his jerk of an older brother, and he has one more older brother in Vietnam who used to be a jerk, but changed when he went into the military. 

The cards seem to be stacked against Doug until a few things happen. 1. He meets local girl Lil Spicer, who gets him a job as a delivery boy for her father's deli, and teaches him how to drink a really cold coke. 2. He discovers the book of Audubon plates in the library, and begins taking drawing lessons with library employee Mr. Powell. 3. He meets the eccentric writer Mrs. Windermere, who drags him and Lil into a broadway adaptation of Jane Eyre. 

Through these experiences, Doug learns about life, loss and love, and he finds the strength to endure an abusive father, and overcome the skinny thug reputation that he's been saddled with. 

This stand alone companion to the Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars, though is a worthwhile read in it's own right, and is full of well-drawn, and interesting characters. One thing that Gary Schmidt does well is create characters, and he's certainly done it here. 

The story opens with Doug's family being forced to move to a new town in upstate New York when his father gets a new job working at the local paper mill with his buddy. Doug, a typical fourteen-year-old is angry about the move, and especially the fact that his new house (the dump as he calls it) is smaller and shabbier, and he'll have to share a room with his older brother who also bullies him. He walks around town with a tremendous chip on his shoulder, and while he's aware that he's acting like his eldest brother, he doesn't see a reason not to. 

Doug's brother Christopher, (the one at home) immediately gets into some trouble with the law, and is under suspicion of theft, making things even more difficult for Doug. Whether or not Christopher is guilty of anything is irrelevant- the town believes he is, and expects Doug to be the same. School starts off on a rocky note, and most of his teachers treat him like he's a criminal. This is a classic case of living up or down to expectation, and Doug decides that if nobody is going to give him a chance, he might as well be the troublemaker they think he is. 

Doug is an extremely well-developed and sympathetic character, and he's refreshingly honest. His narration is blunt and brave, and you can feel the emotion behind everything he writes. He wants to be a good kid. He wants to be a kid that people think of as dependable and likeable, but sometimes his life overwhelms him and he gives up.

Doug's brother's are also interesting characters, and there is a lot more to them than it initially seems. Christopher, Doug's second older brother, doesn't even have a name for the first part of the book, and seems to be following in his father's footsteps. He belittles Doug at every chance, steals his stuff, and seems to be a criminal in the making. Lucas, the eldest, returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair with his legs gone, and damaged eyes, and he's emotionally wrecked. Christopher, incidentally is the only one in the family strong enough to carry Lucas' wheelchair, and in his interactions with Lucas, readers start to see glimpses of someone who might be a decent person. 

And then there is Lil, who becomes Doug's friend, and doesn't take any crap from him. She has a strong personality, and she brings out the good part of Doug. She's the first girl that he falls in love with, and they form a really special bond. 

There are a number of other characters whom Doug meets on his deliveries, and they are quirky, interesting, and really give the reader a sense of the community. The characters I couldn't like were Doug's parents. His mother is basically a battered housewife, always walking on eggshells and trying to avoid her husband's wrath. She seems to love her kids, but she's pitiable. Doug's father is an abusive bully through and through, and his buddy Ernie Eco is just as bad. His dad is quick with his fists, doesn't provide for his family, and has a tremendous sense of entitlement. He acts like he's better than everybody, and complains bitterly about everyone he knows. There isn't a single redeeming quality about him, and even his one decent act at the end (not explicitly stated but implied) isn't enough to make me believe that there is anything good or decent about him. Doug certainly implies that he changes, but it's at the end of the book, and a bit too convenient for me. 

Okay For Now is an extremely compelling novel and should be high in your to read pile. The writing is excellent, and the author gives his narrator such a clear and wonderful voice that he'll stick with you long after you've finished the book. There is no swearing or gratuitous violence, but the author does touch on some sensitive issues- such as public feeling towards Vietnam and abuse, which makes it a more suitable read for grade 6 and up.