Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Wednesday Wars.

The Plot: Doug Swieteck and family have just moved to upstate New York. His abusive, drunk of a father mouthed off to his boss and got fired. The family packs up what it can and moved into a house Doug calls “the Dump” while his father gets a job with less pay. Doug’s attitude towards his new town? “Stupid Marysville.” “I hate this town. I hate that we had to come here.”  He doesn’t just have to fight his own initial bad attitude; it seems his family (at least, the men in the family — his father and older brother) — are quickly seen as thugs by the towns people, and Doug is a thug by association. Over the course of Doug’s eighth grade year, he gradually overcomes both his own bias and that of the locals.

The Good: The voice! Doug’s voice! I adored it, was swept away by it, not just in how Schmidt captures a thirteen year old with a chip on his shoulder trying not to be “that person” who strikes out in anger, but also how Doug reveals information. Look at that simple quote, above — “I hate that we had to come here” — and how in those few words we find out so much about Doug. It’s not the town he hates, but the fact that his father lost a job, that they had no options, that it’s a step down, that they “had” to do this. Again and again, Doug reveals information he doesn’t realize he’s revealing. It’s a thing of beauty, actually, to go through the book and find instance after instance of this.

Okay For Now is the story of a year in Doug’s life. On his first day exploring Marysville, Doug visits the library and discovers a book of Audubon’s bird illustrations. He is captivated it; he returns to it; he tries not to admit how he is fascinated by the portraits of birds. Doug’s interest in the illustrations — no, Doug’s falling in love with the Audubon prints — shows that Doug has depths he cannot admit to himself. He sees himself and his family and friends in the birds; he begins to draw, to learn how to look at things, to examine things closely; and realizes the importance of things and people being whole.

I laughed and cried at Doug’s experiences. His fortitude and strength in the face of challenges. His falling in love with Audubon’s bird illustrations. The way that Schmidt used the illustrations and Doug’s interpretations of the artwork throughout the novel. Doug’s dealings with teachers who (except for one) see him as nothing. I was swept away by the language.

From here on, spoilers.

Heavy Medal has discussed Okay for Now in the context of the Newbery criteria. It’s an interesting process, looking at a book in terms of awards. From a flat out, “will kids enjoy this book?,” I say the answer is yes. But for awards, one has to take that list of stellar books and go deeper. The main concerns with Okay For Now are not the voice or the setting, but rather the plot. A few things happen that some people just don’t “buy”; see Heavy Medal for details. I appreciate some of that; but, honestly, I don’t know sports so the use of Joe Pepitone, to me, is fine, a way to show some light and hope in Doug’s otherwise bleak world. Doug himself is so charming that as I was reading I believed everything he told me. It wasn’t until afterwards, thinking about it, that I began asking myself questions like “if Doug’s dad takes his $5 a week delivery boy money, how much did Doug make from the Broadway play and what is Dad doing with that?”

Here is where I have a couple questions of my own about Okay For Now, which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

Coach Reed. He was a bully and abused his role as teacher. (By the way, part of my love for this book is how Doug uses names and, when he doesn’t like someone, stops using their names. I love when the Coach becomes “so-called gym teacher”.) I didn’t get why he was targeting Doug, other than because Doug’s family is poor so he knows there will be no parent banging on his door about it. Yes, I get that the Coach was in Vietnam, at the My Lai massacre, but I just didn’t see how that ties into trying to get Doug’s fellow students to gang up on Doug. As for Doug keeping the stats, are we supposed to think that Reed is illiterate? One strength of the novel is that Doug’s time in Marysville is spent beginning to see people as who they are and not caricatures; and people seeing him as a person, not a no good thug. Is that the case with Reed? I’d say yes, but while other teachers do things that are open to interpretation (calling on someone in class may or may not be personal), with Reed, Doug provides some very specific instances of Reed’s bullying. Honestly, I can excuse all of Reed’s pre-tattoo behaviour, but I cannot excuse the wrestling incidents. I also don’t get why Reed stopped. I bought the turnaround with the Principal, but not with the Coach.

Was Ernie Eco the thief? If so, did he set up Christopher? And was the father aware of it? For me, the ending was overly cryptic about what had happened. (But, I did read this in ARC so maybe the final copy was clearer.)

Which brings me to a point I have seen addressed elsewhere, the father. He’s a mean drunk, and while there is some possibility that he’s stopped drinking by the end (the description of the father at the end may be alcohol withdrawal) color me unconvinced. Betsy at Fuse #8 points out how the adult reader may view the ending as different from the child reader. I can live with that, in the sense of not seeing it as a flaw of the book but rather a matter of interpretation. Plus, as others point out at Heavy Medal, all we are promised is that things are “okay for now.” This is why I love smart conversations, critical conversations, about books; I don’t see the end as flawed because of the father; rather, I can identify my own issues (drunk abusive men don’t change overnight and I cannot believe that Doug’s father did); and then see whether it’s an issue for the book (he’s not supposed to be shown as “fixed,” rather, “okay for now”.) (Though in the fanfic in my head, Doug’s mother finally throws her husband out in time to prevent her three sons from becoming him and continuing to be hurt by him and opens some type of gardening shop.)

10 thoughts on “Review: Okay For Now

  1. Your review, Liz, brought up something for me that, again (as with many of the issues in this book), I think probably won’t be an issue for kids, but really bothered me. I think the mom is depicted as pretty saintly (which makes sense since we’re seeing her from Doug’s point of view), but I cannot respect her decision to stay with this man when he’s done such terrible things to their children and that impairs me seeing her as a sympathetic character. I think most kids won’t even think about this – they’ll see her through Doug’s lens and be just fine with that, but if the intent is for her to be sympathetic (which maybe if I reread this I’ll discover that we’re supposed to have a more complex reaction to her, that’s just not what I remember) then that makes her character not completely effective for me. I still have some sympathy for her because, you know, it is a terrible situation to be in, but she’s not doing anything to change that situation. Anyway, I hadn’t realized that was bothering me until I read your review, so thanks!


  2. When I heard Gary Schmidt speak at the National Book Festival, he said that he believes in grace and that everyone can change. So he was compelled to give some hope for Doug’s father. I appreciate that, but at the same time I admit that I would love to read your fan fiction! 🙂


  3. Jen B, I was so swept away by Doug’s voice and his love for her — the way he spoke about her smile, and bringing her flowers — that it wasn’t until I was done and thinking more about this that I realized, she’s a victim, yes, but she’s also allowing this to happen to her sons and I tried telling myself at that time, that place, people would say it was better to stay with a man like the father than to divorce. It speaks to the power of the narration that I didn’t judge the mother as harshly as I usually do judge such parents in works of fiction. I think part of it is, because of how Doug tells the story, the violence is not described graphicly and I even imagine that some younger readers may not realize just how frequently or badly the father physically abuses his family.

    Sondy, what’s funny is in terms of grace and change — I see that for the sons. No doubt. I hope, for the family’s sake, that the father’s realization that (as i read it) he almost let his son go to jail is enough to keep him sober. (Hmmm… I have to check. I’m pretty sure that he’s not shown drinking for the last few months.)

    Brandy, thanks!


  4. I really see this as a time piece in terms of the relationship between the mother and father and siblings. I think that there were probably lot’s of domestic violence situations in the sixties, seventies (even still today…) in which people just want to think that everything is “okay for now” and “not that bad”

    I read this book in one sitting and honestly all the previous points brought up were not even a factor while I was reading it or even after I thought about it because it is after all fiction and for me it all doesn’t have to tied up nicely, I just have to enjoy the ‘yarn’! I have to say that it has been a struggle to find a ‘good book’ lately and this book pulled me out of the slump. It was the first book I read in its entirety on a Kobo touch, which made viewing the pictures disappointing, but I could visualize the pictures very well due to the great descriptions in the book. A wonderful read, I just want it to be read by teens and adults!


  5. It makes sense to me that this story wouldn’t be tied up with a neat bow at the end. As you say, so many of these situations in real life aren’t. I tend to prefer a tidy ending but can deal with “unfinished business” if it’s realistic and appropriate. It isn’t a cliffhanger or open ended for the sake of being open ended. I’m interested to see where I might fall on this one.


  6. CLM, let us know what you think.

    YRLJW, part of the reason I think this book is so powerful is because I was so taken with Doug’s voice and how he saw things that, just as he adored his mother, and saw her as not responsible for the abuse, so did I. Part of what I find interesting with this book is that while intellectually I know the way domestic abuse was treated in this book was typical for the time; and emotionally I was totally taken in by Doug; at the end of the day, personally, such casual attitudes towards abuse are hard for me to handle “the day after,” as it were.

    Michelle, I’ll be interested to see your view on this.


  7. I haven’t come across this book or author before, and I’m so sorry I haven’t. This sounds like an amazing read, and everything in this review makes me wish bookstores were open right now (it’s almost 12:30 a.m.) and buy a copy. Guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

    Thanks so much for the awesome review and rec!



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