The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston. Carolrhoda Lab. 2010. Reviewed from uncorrected proof from publisher.
The Plot: Loa Lindgren has had a year of heartbreak and loss. Her younger sister died; one friend left town, another was killed in an accident. Her family is shattered first by the loss of a beloved child and next by the economic stress of job loss.
The Good: The Freak Observer is on the shortlist for the Morris Award. Which means, in a nutshell, that The Freak Observer has been recognized as one of the five best debut novels for YA, which means that yes, your library should have it. So if you weren’t sure about purchasing — do.
This also means that if you love YA literature, you should read this (and the other nominees) because, well, it’s one of the five best debut novels. Read it to both get a better understanding of what that means and also then to be able to weigh on the discussion of the Morris Award and what novels did or didn’t make it to the shortlist.
And the reason for all this talking about a book without talking about a book is, well, I’m going to be talking about the book and may include spoilers because for me, for The Freak Observer, the beauty and strength cannot be discussed without revealing either plot points or character growth that some people would prefer to discover on their own.
On with the book.
At first, Loa Lindgren’s life seems harsh and brutal. “I have a little yellow green blush of bruise under my jaw. . . . I could raise my hand and tell the whole class what I learned about pressure and force when my dad clobbered me.” Ah, the reader thinks as the pages turn, this will be a book about an abusive family.
The reader would be wrong. Loa’s younger sister Asta died the year before from Rett Syndrome, a disorder where for the first eighteen months of a child’s life everything seems fine and then the child stagnates and regresses. For years, her parents took care of their daughter. Woolston paints a picture of a loving family despite the stress, a working class family where the father works hard and comes home at night and reads aloud to his family and his dying daughter. He names his daughter after the names in books he reads: Asta Sollilja. (Yes, I am the nerd who researched what book her father was reading….)
Loa’s father is not a violent man, he is a man moved to violence because he watched a beloved child die, he lost his job and sees his wife and daughter working to put food on the table, and he is moved to the violent act against Loa because she has come home in a police car after having witnessed a friend die in a truck accident which may be suicide. Loa thinks, “What’s the difference? Why am I not a dead girl? I don’t for a minute know. I look at my dad. He can’t let himself be sad. He can’t let himself be frightened. But I’ve forced this moment. The fear jumps out of his eyes and into me like a hot spark. ‘You could’a been the dead one.’ That’s when he hits me with the plunger, because I could have been the dead one. He hits me because it is easier to be angry than to be afraid. I could have been the dead one, but I’m not.” This is a story not of the toll that caring for an child takes on a family, it is the story of what happens to the family after that child who has been the center of the family dies.
Loa is studying science and physics, and “freak observer” is something she researches as a special extra credit project. Loa explains, “a Freak Observer pops into existence as a self-aware entity that makes its universe orderly.” Loa’s universe is far from orderly, hasn’t been orderly since her sister died. Loa struck up a “friends with benefits” relationship with a boy from the debate team but then he left for a better school. She then began hanging out with Esther and others from school, until Esther was hit by a truck. Loa is not fixed, going from here to there, not quite sure what to do. The Freak Observer begins the day after Esther’s death, with flashbacks to the previous year — perhaps, then, the Freak Observer who gives Loa order is the reader, the book, the telling of the story.
After her sister’s death, Loa cannot sleep, has nightmares. Loa’s family did their best. “So I started going to grief counseling at the clinic. It was useful. The first day I went in, my mom made sure everyone was clear on the project. The insurance would pay for six visits. The plan was to get me fixed up in six hours or, if that wasn’t quite possible, to make me stop screaming in the night.” In this one sentence, Loa and her family are captured: they care, they do what they can, they don’t have much, and there is humor.
Loa’s family is proudly working class. They live in the house her father was raised in, indoor plumbing only came the generation before, they don’t take hand-outs. Sometimes it seems there are only two socio-economic realities in young adult books: urban poor or upper middle class suburbia, with the occasional rich city kids thrown in for good measure. Loa’s family doesn’t have a lot, and I’m sure others would see them as the poor country folk, but they get by. One of the interesting things that Woolston does is to provide two parents who have incredible depth of character yet limit what we see about them to what Loa sees and wants to see. She is at times dismissive of them, of their relationship, but what she tells us reveals to the reader a couple who have had a rough time, have three children they love, lost one, and then got knocked down again when the local lumber mill let her father go. He doesn’t find steady work, but her mother works a shift in a nursing home that doesn’t pay benefits.
Now comes the part that fascinates me — and the reason for those spoiler warnings — by the end of the book, the mother (who is probably late 30s) goes back to school, moving with her children into university housing while the father stays at the house because someone has to make sure that the pipes don’t freeze. Before you think this is a divorce — “he kisses my mom on her eyelids and goes. Like I said, some great romance.” Oh, Loa, I want to say — that is a great romance. And it also is an interesting reveal about her parents. They may have been frozen by the death and dying of a child but they are finding their own way to go forward. Their way forward would not be significant to some, as Loa now sleeps on a sofa in the living room. But, to her little brother’s great excitement, they now live someplace that gets pizza delivery. They now live somewhere that allows Loa an opportunity, a new school, a new place, without the physical isolation of their country home. Before, she was physically and emotionally isolated; now, the physical is removed and that allows the emotional walls to slowly dissolve.
So, yes, in a way the plot of this book can be summed up: “and then the family moved to town.” Seriously, though, the real strength of the book is the fascinating character of Loa and the glimpses into the people around her. Any one of them is strong enough to support their own book, because each has their own story or motivation or damage and we only see glimpses, the glimpses that Loa knows, and part of Loa’s growth is when she realizes that people do things for reasons that are not all about her.
Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2010? Absolutely. The Freak Observer and Loa got under my skin in a way few books do. Even better, the more I thought about it while writing this review, the more I liked it. To me, that is a real strength of a book — how it sticks with you. How it continues to make you think after you finish reading.
So, for your teen readers, how to booktalk it? Give it to the ones who prefer literary works, your readers of Sonya Hartnett. The ones who read for character. When putting together lists and recommendations about economic diversity and people struggling in today’s economy — include this. And, needless to say, those readers who are looking for a book that will make them cry? Look no further.