Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Okay for Now

Okay for Now--Gary D. Schmidt
August 2011 by Clarion Books
360 pages--Goodreads

As a fourteen-year-old who just moved to a new town, with no friends and a louse for an older brother, Doug Swieteck has all the stats stacked against him. So begins a coming-of-age masterwork full of equal parts comedy and tragedy from Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt. 

As Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that his teachers and the police think him to be, he finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer--a fiery young lady who "smelled like daisies would smell if they were growing in a big field under a clearing sky after a rain." In Lil, Doug finds the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a whole town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Together, they find a safe haven in the local library, inspiration in learning about the plates of John James Audubon's birds, and a hilarious adventure on a Broadway stage. 

In this stunning novel, Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

It's rare that a book can make me cry and laugh on the same page.  I can't tell you how many times I gasped aloud or giggled or teared up (which was bad because I was driving and listening to the audiobook) while reading the book.  And there were actual tears coming down my face as I finished the book.  I put off lesson planning, I put off sleep just so I could finish this book.  It is beautiful.  Just as The Wednesday Wars ties in Shakespeare plays to Holling's life, Okay for Now weaves Audobon's bird paintings into Doug's.  The noble pelican, the terrified eye, the mother bird looking into the distance.  

As a character, Doug is real.  Doug's reactions are genuine, even annoying when he lashes out like a jerk or a thug.  That's how Doug would react.  He has parts of his father in him, mostly sayings and phrases that he has internalized.  Even if he breaks the cycle of abuse, he is still partly his father.  All the other characters are multidimensional too.  Schmidt humanizes almost every single one of them.  Even the bully brother and the bully gym teacher became real people with both light and dark inside them.

The abuse was handled, well, I can't say beautifully because it is not a beautiful thing, but artfully maybe.  It is never stated directly that Doug's father is abusive, is alcoholic, beats his family.  Everything is implied.  And I loved that.  When it happens in real life, abuse is never talked about, even though everyone knows.  Schmidt conveys that through his writing style.  

The title fits the book perfectly.  Will things get better for Doug?  Maybe not.  Maybe they will get much worse.  But for now he is okay.

Part adorkable (the puffins!), part heartbreaking, Okay for Now is a beautiful book that I will definitely come back to again.  Congratulations, Mr. Schmidt.  You have been added to my "I will read anything you publish" list.

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