October 31, 2013
(+++) THE GENTLE AND THE ROUGH
The Boy on the Porch. By Sharon Creech. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Great Unexpected. By Sharon Creech. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The League. By Thatcher Heldring. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Novels for preteens and young teenagers tend to be in the action/adventure mode most of the time, whether directed at boys or girls. They may be set in the past or future, in this world or an alternative one, but they are generally plot-driven rather than character-driven and tend to move ahead at a steady pace, if not a frantic one. Sharon Creech’s books, though, are an exception. She writes novels that are something like toned-down, detuned adult books of the type focused on character interactions in semi-realistic settings, and she does this consistently – as in The Boy on the Porch and The Great Unexpected (the latter originally published last year and now available in paperback). Both these books have improbable setups that Creech uses to explore the possible emotional reactions of fairly realistic (although generally one-dimensional) characters. Believe in the characters and you will be pulled into the novels and pulled along with them; find them lacking and the plot disconnections will leave you disappointed. The Boy on the Porch, for example, starts with the depositing on the veranda of a rural American home of a boy who is about six years old; the young owners of the house, John and Marta, know only that someone will be back for him sometime (a poorly written note says so). The boy can tell them nothing – he is mute – but he soon wends his way into their hearts, becoming so integral to their thoughts and feelings that they dread the inevitable day when someone will return to claim him. The rural lifestyle portrayed here is quite idyllic and idealized, and the obvious questions about why John and Marta simply take the boy in and worry about his eventual departure, instead of going to authorities or taking any action outside their small homestead, are glossed over. All this is typical of Creech, whose taste for realism extends only so far. The boy turns out to have considerable artistic talent, and he has something almost mystical in common with the couple’s silent beagle and a cow that they found tied to their fence: John and Marta seem to draw misplaced characters to themselves. But the boy, Jacob, seems more a symbol than a full-fledged individual throughout the book, and in fact John and Marta do as well: readers who get involved in the story will respond emotionally to it, especially to the tear-jerker ending, but the book has a certain obviousness and self-righteousness as it explores questions of right and wrong. Still, it does explore them, and with some subtlety, which is more than books for preteens and young teens usually do.
Creech also mixes the believable with the far-fetched in The Great Unexpected, which starts with a boy falling out of a tree onto protagonist Naomi Deane, who is the primary narrator of a book that in part explores the ups and downs of Naomi’s relationship with her best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, and in part is a mystery involving Ireland, to which the scene shifts periodically (and rather jarringly). This book is written in a mixture of styles that takes some getting used to – it can be hard to tell when a chapter begins if it follows the one before immediately, or if several weeks have passed. The book is also filled with alliterative names that some may find charming and others irritating: Crazy Cora, “the dapper Dingle Dangle man,” and so on. The underlying mystery of the book – that is, the mystery of the boy in the tree – requires an eventual uniting of the two story lines, the one involving Naomi and Lizzie and the other involving the Irish estate that shows up periodically. There should be a sense of wonder within the realism here – that is clearly what Creech is striving for – but the book does not hang together particularly well, largely because of its confusing structure and also because of a few too many narrative tricks, such as having the two women in Ireland talk in what seems like a crazy way that turns out at the end to make sense. Whether this plays fair with the reader will depend on whether that reader is charmed by Creech’s quirkiness or comes to find it tiresome. Creech certainly writes stories that are gentler and more heartfelt than most for a preteen and young-teenage audience, and as such are a welcome relief from formulaic adventure tales. But she has formulas of her own, and readers will not necessarily find them as sweetly thoughtful as Creech obviously intends them to be.
Thatcher Heldring’s The League is a far more typical tale for this age group, and a far more boy-oriented one. It is the usual “sports make the man” story, with the emphasis being on the right kind of sport, specifically with American football being good, strong and manly and golf being some sort of lesser activity. Wyatt Parker wants to play football, both because it will make him a tougher “real man” and because it will impress his next-door neighbor, Evan, who naturally has eyes only for the town’s star quarterback. Wyatt’s parents, though, are significant obstacles, with their droning on about how people get hurt in football; so they have signed Wyatt up for golf camp, where he emphatically does not want to go. Then Wyatt’s older brother, Aaron, drops hints – which Wyatt picks up on – about some sort of secret football program, and eventually lets Wyatt know (dramatically) that it is called the League of Pain, and that Wyatt can join if he dumps golf camp. So of course Wyatt does that, lying to the camp about needing to cancel because, he says, he is going to Space Camp instead. And of course he then has to lie to his parents, too (Evan, however, thinks the idea of Wyatt playing football is cool). And so Wyatt gets into a cascade of lies, exposing considerable angst in the process: “I wished I could run right through Mom and keep going. I was so sick of doing whatever anybody told me to do when other people just did whatever they wanted. In fact, this made me want to play football even more. …I wanted to kick a hole in the wall. It wasn’t enough to tell me what to say, Mom also had to tell me how to say it.” Well, of course sports, specifically football, are here portrayed as a fine, socially acceptable outlet for this sort of aggressiveness. And Wyatt gets subjected to more and more problems – for instance, when his parents give him an old, worn pair of golf shoes that his father used to own and says he kept for 30 years so he could pass them on. The characters in this book are so unpleasant that it makes perfect sense for the League of Pain to have teams called the Morons and the Idiots. Obviously Wyatt is going to get caught (he does), and obviously his clueless (and really rather mean-spirited) parents are going to punish him and make him miserable (they do), and obviously Aaron is going to get in trouble as well (he does). And obviously nobody is going to say that football itself is anything but wonderful (nobody does). The League, a (++) book, is so unthinking an endorsement of the American version of macho sports that it could almost be funny – except that there is nothing amusing in the attitudes it endorses and expresses through Heldring’s cast of smarmy, thoroughly unpleasant characters.