Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

Book: Okay for Now
Author: Gary Schmidt
Published: 2011
Source: Review copy from publisher, via NetGalley

Doug Swieteck is moving to a podunk little town in the middle of nowhere and he’s not looking forward to it. For one thing, he doesn’t think his nasty father and brother will be any nicer in upstate New York than they are in Long Island.

He’s right, they're not. But this podunk little town has riches galore for this tough, savvy, yet vulnerable kid. In the local library, he discovers the artwork of John Audobon. In his part-time job, he discovers the joy of being respected and valued as a hard worker, and in his boss’s daughter, he discovers the joys and woes of being friends and possibly (gulp!) more with a girl.

But these new joys in his life don’t mean all the darkness has vanished.

In some ways this is a challenging book. Schmidt doesn’t stop to explain anything, trusting that his readers will keep up. Not only that, what Doug says and what he does and what he really thinks are often three radically different things. We don’t need the words, “I’m a punching bag for my father and brothers” to understand that this is the case. Doug speaks to us directly, as if we are some invisible audience to his changing world, and he’s exactly as prickly and guarded as he is when speaking to the inhabitants of his real life.

In The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt told the story of a boy learning to use Shakespeare as a lens through which to understand the world. He does something similar in Okay for Now, but with art instead of literature. Doug, who lives a life so layered with things he can’t talk about, finds that in the unspoken tragedy and beauty of John Audubon's bird paintings, he can make sense of his senseless world. His brother Lucas, a double amputee back home from Vietnam, is angry and embittered. But Doug, who was struck by the terrible pain of a hopeless and dying bird in one of the Audobon prints, sees the same pain in his brother’s eyes, and finds a way to push through his shell and drag him back to life. Remember that this is one of the same brothers who regularly beat him up. Doug is learning empathy for his tormentors and enemies as well as his friends. People, he is finding, are so much more complex than they seem.

This isn't a book you read for the intricate plotting, unless your definition of plot refers to emotional intricacies and slow revelations. That's why I was so surprised to find myself staying up until after midnight to finish it. But Doug pulled me into his world and wouldn't let me go until he was good and ready. This book has been getting awards chatter ever since the first ARCs started slipping out, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some kind of shiny sticker on this book come January.

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