I adored this book.
It’s the late 60’s and humankind is about to take the first step on the moon. But this isn’t having much impression on one fourteen-year-old who just moved to “stupid Marysville.”
So begins a coming-of-age masterwork, equal parts comedy and tragedy, from Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt. As Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer—a fiery young lady who “smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain.” In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library and inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon’s birds. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.
Yes, the odds are stacked against Doug Swietek. Most of the Marysville townspeople immediately decide that he and his brother are “thugs,” but their exterior demeanor is simply a survival mechanism from living with the regular verbal and physical abuse from their father. Doug finds little solace at home as his brother is following in his father’s footsteps, and his timid mother is simply trying to keep the household together.
But in this town is a library (open only on Saturdays), and in this library is something that changes Doug’s life forever: a book about birds, an Audubon original. Not only is he mesmerized by the illustrations of the birds, he reads the details of the drawings as stories he imagines they tell. Schmidt uses Doug’s voice to narrate his growing comprehension of the art, a combination of imagination and hope, that he extends to his outside world.
We see this change in Doug, his struggle to be a good person, but others don’t. And there were moments I wanted to reach into the book and throttle the adults who fed into his negative image of himself, that he was just a “chump.” But then, there are those adults who decide to give him a chance: his science teacher who tells him he’s not his brother (who has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is accused of burglary), the deli owner who gives him a job delivering food to a cast of characters who are slowly won over to Doug’s side, and most of all Mr. Powell who works at the library and teaches him how to draw . . . It makes one realizes how even small gestures, positive or negative, can make a difference in a child’s world.
(Of course I can’t forget the influence of a stubborn young girl named Lily, the deli owner’s daughter, who manages to see the good in him as well.)
When Doug makes it his mission to find and return all the missing plates from a valuable Audubon book, it gives his life purpose and direction when he could have easily slipped into a life of self-destruction. Yes, this book is about a boy who comes from an abusive home, but at the same time, there is humour here. There is redemption and love here. It’s not all tied up in a pink pretty ribbon, but I found the results very satisfying.
As well, Schmidt does an amazing job of making us see and feel abusive behaviour, but with little vulgarity or graphic violence. He does this through his narrator. Doug will say something like, “My dad’s hands moved really fast . . .” or “Well, you know what my Dad had to say about that.” So that the violence and swearing are left to our own imagination. There’s a few “freaking” this or that sprinkled in his father’s conversation, but I never got the sense of being inundated with it. Schmidt has created a book that can live solidly on the middle grade shelves, where younger kids who need to find this book will.
I love the struggle between the two sides of this kid, trying to act tough and cool and uncaring, but his artistic, generous side, the side of him aching for approval, keeps on in spite of what his father and bully brothers have drilled into him. He just decides he’s going to prove himself no matter what. And it’s the discovery of his artistic side, of his ability to appreciate the beauty of Audubon’s work, that gives him this confidence. (Well, that and the attentions of a stubborn, and cute, girl. Did I mention that she’s cute?)
She came over and looked at the picture. Then she took my hand. You know what that feels like? Like what the astronauts will feel when they step onto the moon for the very first time. Like what might happen if Coach Reed rang the doorbell at The Dump some afternoon and sat down next to Lucas. Like knowing that Principal Peattie is wrong about what he said. Like laying a missing bird picture back where it’s supposed to be. Like someone seeing what a chump you are and getting you a cold Coke anyway. Like Possibility.
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