Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Okay for Now

Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now is fabulous! Stupendous! Absolutely breathtaking! I believe this might be my favorite book in the last twelve months of reading! The minute I finished, I wanted to write up this review and begin listening all over again (although, I believe I will wait and actually pick up the hard copy of this book because it promises to show the prints of John James Audobon's Birds of America, an integral part of the story).

When I first began listening, I worried that I wouldn't be able to recommend this book as highly as Gary D. Schmidt's other book, The Wednesday Wars, because it didn't seem as clean and wholesome. Indeed, the beginning is quite crass compared to the previous book. But, I would absolutely hate for someone to fail to give this book a chance because of the edgy and rough character telling the story. In the end, I believe this story holds great redemption and is written with such grace and truth that it is a story worth digesting, despite the traumatizing aspects of some of the abuse the main character suffers. Life is harder for some people than we can even imagine and this book brings you closer to someone who must get through the hard moments and triumph in spite of them.

Doug Swieteck, a minor character in The Wednesday Wars, is far rougher than Holling Hoodhood, yet he learns some of the same lessons, especially that of finding comfort in art and creative endeavors (Holling found it in Shakespeare, while Doug finds it in the prints of John James Audobon's Birds of America). Life is horribly unfair for Doug. With an abusive father and brother, another brother off fighting in Vietnam, and a move to a stupid town where everyone assumes he's a thug, Doug Swietek doesn't have much going for him. Then, he meets Lil Spicer, the feisty daughter of a local deli owner and her father gives him a job making Saturday deliveries with a wagon. While life doesn't turn into a bed of roses (far from it), it begins a journey toward profound redemption and value.

What did I so thoroughly love about this book? The characters were believable and vibrant - with both despicable and noble aspects co-existing (don't we all have good and bad in us?).  There's a scary, eccentric, intimidating playwright, a kindly librarian who opens Doug's world with the art of Audobon, a mean-spirited gym teacher (the "so-called gym teacher" as Doug calls him, until things begin to turn around and Doug learns that even the so-called gym teacher is human with strengths and weaknesses and experiences that alter him), and a middle school principal who is anything but a pal and addresses the students in the third person.

The voice of the main character is striking and clear. You will feel as if you've known Doug Swieteck your entire life. You will come to expect the words which come from his mouth: "Terrific," "I'm not lying," and "Do you know what it feels like when...." You get inside the head of this character. He is rough, yet tender. He is hardened, yet conscientious. He is troubled, yet triumphant. Schmidt certainly nailed the voice and emotions of an adolescent boy in the late 1960s (or any time, for that matter).

The author's writing was remarkably moving. I wish my own writing could evoke such an intense emotional response.  He could make learning how to play horseshoes or draw sound magical. He moved me to tears more often than I could count and also had me laughing out loud between the tears, sometimes in the midst of the tears. While the content was often disturbing (let's just say I would have removed Doug Swieteck from his home environment if I could have), hope was always lingering in the wings and beauty made a regular appearance in the midst of the devastating humiliations and difficult moments. Each word managed to work together to carry the reader into a plane of experience full of emotion and empathy. The writing was magical, it was so brilliant.

Plus, despite being a young adult book (actually aimed at listeners 10-16), this book held great appeal for me as an adult reader. Set in the summer of 1968, it fully transports the reader back to that time - a time of space missions to the moon (endless possibilities), Joe Pepitone playing for the New York Yankees (a hero to worship), and war (a cold reality, full of angst and disappointment). Then there were the ubiquitous plates of Audobon's birds. I remember my own parents purchasing a book of Audobon's art.  Whether they were the prints of these amazing birds or not, I cannot remember - but I remember being moved by the art of this famous painter. Perhaps this is why that particular aspect of the story resonated so deeply with me.

If you want to immerse yourself in the world of the late 60s, if you want to root for an underdog, if you wish to be moved to laughter and tears, then you cannot go wrong with this book. Some reviewers have said that the experiences the main character endures are too traumatizing for young readers (especially the father's 12th birthday gift to his son). You would have to know your own child and their sensitivities to assess whether they could handle the realities of abusive situations. But, sometimes a reader has to go down to the depths in order to be transported to greater heights and I promise, if you put up with the rough edges, you will be rewarded with "a story about creativity and loss, love and recovery, and survival," as the back cover proclaims. It was an experience I wish I could have over again for the first time.

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