December 21, 2006


Deliver Us from Normal. By Kate Klise. Scholastic. $5.99.

Far from Normal. By Kate Klise. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There’s nothing normal about Normal, Illinois, in the eyes and mind of 11-year-old Charles Harrisong.  And the good citizens of Normal don’t find all that much normal about Charles and his family.  The Harrisongs are poor, and they seem weird, and Charles is blessed (or cursed, as the case may be and often is) with the ability to feel people’s true emotions, even when their feelings are at odds with what they are outwardly saying or doing (in fact, especially then).

     Kate Klise is a reporter for the bubbleheaded People magazine and has written a series of light graphic novels, but the initial tale of the Harrisongs, and especially of Charles, is a serious one, and she handles it well.  Klise explains, in the “After Words” section of the new paperback edition of Deliver Us from Normal, that she started the book shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that the overall seriousness of the time affected her writing.  There are still plenty of flashes of humor in the book, such as Charles’ unwanted obsession with a ridiculous jingle for Bargain Bonanza stores, but the underlying theme is pretty well summed up by Charles when he says, “Some wishes come true.  Some wishes don’t.  Sometimes you find out you were wishing for the completely wrong thing.”  In the case of Deliver Us from Normal, what Charles wishes for more than anything is to escape from the Illinois public school where his unwanted emotional perception causes him constant problems – and he does get to escape, with his family, to Fairhope, Alabama (from Normal to Fairhope – now there’s a journey!)…but things aren’t quite as idyllic as Charles has wished them to be.  The Harrisongs really are rather unusual people: they move to a run-down houseboat, which is not exactly where Charles thought his New Life (which he imagines capitalized) would begin.  Despite what Charles calls his “straight-A record for ruining things,” matters actually turn out pretty well, thanks to some old-fashioned mutual respect and love that hold the Harrisongs together.  They’re the sort of nuclear family that used to be considered normal.

     But then there’s Klise’s new book about the Harrisongs, Far from Normal.  Yes, the family is far from Normal, Illinois now; and it’s easy enough to argue that these people were rather far from normal all along.  But the title barely hints at what happens to Charles and his family in the new book, which is much more of a romp than the original.  Bargain Bonanza figures largely here, as the Harrisongs find themselves working as the chain’s spokesfamily.  This leads, naturally enough (within the twisted logic of this book), to creation of a new clothing line called NormalWear, inspired by the Harrisongs.  And that leads to – where else? – reality TV.  Given Klise’s celebrity-focused day job, readers should not be surprised that the antics in Far from Normal seem as if they really could happen, and perhaps have happened, in our celebrity-and-fame-obsessed culture.  When Charles’ sister is asked by celebrity reporter Angela Andrews, “In what way do you think it’s normal to be sexy, and sexy to be normal?” it is one cringeworthy moment among many – largely because questions like that do get asked, all the time, by characters like Andrews, who barely seems a caricature at all.  Perhaps Klise’s willingness to let her sense of humor return to the fore in Far from Normal indicates a greater emotional, as well as temporal, distance from the mass murders of 9/11.  If so, it is a distance Klise shares with many of her would-be readers and their families: it feels good to be able to laugh again.  Yet the edginess of Klise’s humor here may serve as a reminder of how far from normal, or what used to be normal, all our lives now seem to be.

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