Monday, November 13, 2006

Chicken Boy

Book: Chicken Boy
Author: Frances O’Roark Dowell
Published: 2005

Tobin McCauley has a lot to live down to. From his granny, who gets taken off by the police for driving on the sidewalk while dropping him off on his first day of school, to his hell-raising older brothers, to his father, who works and watches NASCAR, nobody expects anything of him. Then he meets Henry, who is on a mission to prove chickens have souls, and recruits Tobin as a co-researcher. Before he knows it, his entire life is changing, and all because of those chickens.

Who knew?

There have been a lot of books about grief, about parent death, about friendship, about broken families, about changing your life, and maybe even a few about chickens. But Frances O’Roark Dowell reassembles all these elements in a fresh new way, through the voice of world-weary Tobin. Through his matter-of-fact observances of his world, you see the wreckage left behind by his mother’s death due to cancer five years before, and the way that sheer inertia has the entire family in a stranglehold. That is, until Tobin makes a few tiny changes.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of this book is Dowell’s portrayal of these changes. While most authors write life-changes as a domino effect--one leading directly to the next--Dowell writes more as if they are jackstraws. One “straw” gets shifted, and all the others are subtly affected until suddenly the whole pile collapses and changes position. In other words, it’s not only Tobin’s life he’s changing; it’s everyone else’s, and their reactions to the changes in turn affect Tobin. By the end, his old world is left behind, but he doesn’t miss it.

And anyway, the chickens are still around.

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