I’ve had this on my iPad for a while and have been circling around it – would it be the Gary D. Schmidt of the great Wednesday Wars/Okay for Now or would it be the Gary D. Schmidt of fantasy twaddle What Came from the Stars? Well, the good news is that we are back in the literary and physical territory of Holling Hoodhood and Doug Swieteck (whose brother is a PE coach in this one), though Mr Schmidt doesn’t quite hit it out of the park.
14 year old Joseph Brooks is a troubled boy who has been through the works: an abusive father, mind-shattering drugs, and time spent in the horrific Stone Mountain juvenile detention centre. And at 13 he became a father, though the mother, Maddie, died in childbirth and the baby is now up for adoption. Joseph gets a break when he is fostered by the Hurd family, and he desperately wants to connect with baby Jupiter whom he has never seen.
This is an elegantly written, moving book, and the character of narrator Jack Hurd is a beautifully sketched portrait of a boy growing up and finding his own set of rules. Joseph is also wonderfully drawn, as a smart, loving boy who has stoically suffered many misfortunes and is now, finally, in a position to flourish.
But compared to Mr. Schmidt’s previous great books, this seems very slight, not just because it’s short but it also feels like it lacks substance. There are no shaded areas – the characters are either saintly – the Hurd parents, some of the teachers, the cows on the farm – or vile – Joseph’s father, the 8th grade bullies. How much more of an interesting exploration of fatherhood this could have been if there were complexity.
Additionally, I found my credulity somewhat strained by Joseph’s relationship with Maddie. I know many 13-year-old boys and, while I’m not saying it isn’t possible, this intense romance just felt like it would happen to a much older teen. And there is some melodrama at the end which comes out of left field and feels like a bit of a cop out.
While this is pitched as a YA novel, it feels more like a middle grade book, though, as I have a slight concern about the early teen pregnancy and the unstated suggestion that Joseph was raped in Stone Mountain, it would probably be better for mature middle graders.
Thanks to Clarion and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.