Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Today I am trying a new kind of book review, at least for me. I call it The Half & Half Book Review. Here is how it works:

1. I read about half of a book.

2. I write a review.

3. When I finish the book, I‘ll write a second review, and go back and put a link to it in the first review.

This could be the start of something cool and exciting, or it could be the first and the last time I do this. We’ll see. Here’s my review of the first half:

When I was a kid my mom went through a jigsaw puzzle phase. She would take over the dining room table for weeks at a time and do enormous jigsaw puzzles. They had 1000 pieces, and sometimes even more, and each piece was the size of an atom. The images were often nature, like a picturesque pond surrounded by endless trees. It was the kind of jigsaw puzzle image that created nightmares with 700 identical-looking pieces of a tree and 300 specks of water. My mother took great pleasure in figuring these out, studying her puzzle as if it were the plan for the moon shot.

As I read Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt – after already having read his miraculous The Wednesday Wars – I am reminded of my mom’s jigsaw puzzles, because that is what Schmidt’s books are: complex jigsaw puzzle stories with many pieces that fit perfectly together to create a whole that works as if every piece was gently crafted for the sole purpose of completing that picture and creating that wholeness.

We first met Doug Swieteck in The Wednesday Wars. He was a character in the background, and his bully of an older brother – known there as “Doug Swieteck’s brother” – was also in that book. The Wednesday Wars was Holling Hoodhood’s story; Okay for Now is Doug’s story, and what a beautiful story it is (so far).

It is 1968 and Doug’s father, after his quick temper gets him fired, moves his family to the small town of Marysville, New York. Doug hates Marysville. He has zero self-esteem, his father is an angry man who drinks too much and hits his kids, and his mom – just like Holling’s mom in The Wednesday Wars – does not stand up to her husband. There are many similarities to The Wednesday Wars, both in the writing and the story. In both books the boys have fathers you hate and mothers you want to scream at to go and help their children. They also have main characters who strike up lovely friendships with caring adults outside their families.

Doug’s primary savior is Mr. Powell, an older man who works at the local library. There are some key aspects to the story that I can’t give away, but suffice it to say that Doug hates to read and would normally never set foot in a library. But he does, and by doing that his life is dramatically changed when he sees a valuable book of bird prints by John James Audubon opened in a glass case. Doug is mesmerized by them; the images and the lifelike details of the birds – as if they were about to fly off the page – grip Doug’s heart and he is suddenly filled with the endless urge to draw them. Doug discovers his secret artist within. Mr. Powell shares this love for Audubon’s birds and works with Doug on his drawings -- and perhaps even more importantly he praises Doug’s artwork, something he never hears about anything from anyone.

In the meantime Doug is smitten with a girl he meets, Lil, whose dad owns the local deli. She sets him up to work for her dad making deliveries on Saturdays, where he meets more local characters. These are just a taste of the puzzle pieces in this marvelous book. There are so many more – like his brother in Vietnam, a string of local burglaries, Doug taking up running, his friendship with his dad’s boss, and his attempt to save Audubon’s book of birds -- that some may think the book is drunk on subplots. But Schmidt makes them all fit together wonderfully. While the book may be a tad slow to get going, it’s never a burden to keep track of the story and before you know it, you are sucked into Doug’s life and are desperately rooting for him to find happiness.

All of this praise does not mean the book is without flaws. To be honest, the story at times strains credulity. When one of his teachers demands Doug tell him what his father did to him, he tells him, and then nothing comes of it. Huh? Is some of this the historical context of the sixties? Maybe. And while this may not seem completely plausible, we also know that sometimes in life this happens.

So I am halfway through this book and so much has already happened that I do not know where Schmidt will take his story. I’m thinking (or hoping) that Doug’s mom will find her courage and her voice in the second half. And Doug’s running will be important. And his brother will come home from Vietnam a broken young man. And his father will take a fall. And Doug will finally shine (somehow) in school. It’s hard to believe I am only midway through Doug Swieteck’s story. That’s a testament to the remarkable talent and originality of Gary Schmidt, whose writing is so lush and sweet and lovely.

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