Review: After Etan

After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive by Lisa R. Cohen. Grand Central Publishing. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: The May 25, 1979, disappearance of Etan Patz, age six.

The Good: Of course I remember it: little boy walking to the bus stop disappears. I was almost thirteen: old enough to remember, young enough to not quite know the details. Old enough to be aware of how the world changed because of it, changes brought about both by fear and knowledge.

That type of “knowing” is not the same as really knowing: I didn’t know the particulars of the case. I had a general idea of what happened after. When the investigation dramatically made its way to the news this past week (In Basement, Hopes to Solve ’79 Case of Missing Boy from The New York Times), I had questions, and decided it was time to read in depth about the case instead of relying on memory or short news articles.

The story is heartbreaking: six year old Etan disappears during the short walk to his school bus stop. Etan never arrived at school that morning, but the school didn’t call his parents, so it wasn’t until Etan didn’t come home that his mother knew he’d gone missing. After Etan is about those first few days, yes, but it also the months and years and decades after. It is about Etan’s parents. It is about the change in society, in knowledge, in laws.

What perhaps made the strongest impact on me was what happened to Etan’s family. (Cohen only briefly touches on Etan’s two siblings, respecting their privacy). The Patzes are going through a nightmare, a nightmare that this past week’s headlines show is literally a never-ending nightmare, yet they have lives to live. Two other children to raise. Finding their son, finding what happened to Etan, justice, matters, but so, too, does creating a loving home for their other children.

After Etan is a reason I sometimes prefer non-fiction to fiction, because the family survives. It does not self-destruct. A fictional version of an always-lost child would have demanded more darkness and scars; would have insisted that those touched be permanently broken.

References are made to other cases, showing the tight time frame that raised the public awareness of  missing and murdered children and the way the police and legal system addressed the cases. The Atlanta Child Murders were happening at the same time. Steven Stayner’s 1980 escape from his kidnapper. Adam Walsh’s kidnapping and murder in 1981.

Reading the book as a basement is being excavated is chilling, because there is no answer. Is Jose Ramos, the person many believe molested and murdered Etan Patz, guilty? The author of the book (like the investigators in the book as well as the Patz family) clearly believe the evidence is there. Is what is happening now going to provide evidence supporting or contradicting that belief?

One thing that struck me as I read the book: the changing way society deals with allegations of pedophilia and molestation.

Additional reading: The Long Search for Etan Patz by Edward Klein, Vanity Fair, 1991; What Happened to Etan Patz by Lisa R. Cohen, New York Magazine, 2009

Review: Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2009. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Ai Ling is seventeen. At the first betrothal arranged by her loving parents, not only is she rejected by the bridegroom and his mother (Ai Ling is too tall; her father left the Emperor’s court in disgrace years before), she discovers something disturbing about herself. Ai Ling can hear other people’s thoughts.

When Ai Ling’s father leaves on a short trip to the Palace, he gives her a jade necklace. Weeks pass, then months, and her father does not return. Ai Ling and her mother do not hear from him. Money grows tight; a neighbor appears, insisting that Ai Ling’s father owes him money and that Ai Ling must marry him to excuse the debt. Ai Ling had earlier heard the disturbing thoughts of this man and suspects the debt is fake.

Ai Ling decides that she has only one option: leave to find her father. Without telling her mother, she heads off and discovers more about herself, and her world, than she ever dreamed possible.

The Good: Trying to describe Silver Phoenix is hard, because it doesn’t fit any existing box.

A quest book.” One could say Ai Ling is on a quest to find her father, but that quickly changes. Oh, yes, Ai Ling wants to find her father. That doesn’t change. Part way through the book, she learns that she has a greater purpose, that more is at stake than bringing her father home. The purpose and intent changes.

“An adventure book.” There is plenty of adventure! Ai Ling meets up with Chen Yong, a young man in search of answers about his biological parents. Chen Yong’s younger brother Li Rong joins them, and as the story progresses there is a lot of action and adventure. Which brings me to…

“Folk / fairy tale retelling.” While this isn’t quite right a descriptor, as this doesn’t retell one particular story, along the way Ai Ling and her friends discover that the stories about demons and gods they thought were only in books are real. And dangerous.

“A romance.” There is some attraction here, yes; but it isn’t quite so simple. Ai Ling developes feelings for someone,  yes, but it is someone on his own journey and he doesn’t appear to quite return those feelings. The relationship is handled in a nice, subtle way. A deeper connection concerns a pair of other characters, a relationship for centuries between two souls. Ai Ling is a part of that connection, and the result is a scene towards the end of the book that was brilliantly written. It’s such a key scene, such an important part of the book, that all I can say is “wow.” We can talk in the comments.

A “puzzle book.” Silver Phoenix isn’t about a puzzle or solving a puzzle, but the pieces fit together very intricately, almost like a puzzle. What at first reading seems like unrelated incidents that are simply different parts of one quest turn out to have much deeper significance and meaning to the whole. For example, the book begins about twenty years before Ai Ling is born. The scene is about a child being born, a child who turns out to be half foreigner so obviously the child of an affair. So, while this book is about Ai Ling, it is clear that there is going to be a bigger story… especially when she meets someone who is about 19 and is part foreigner.

Ai Ling is an interesting main character. She’s a bit out of step with her society; a girl her age should be married, but she isn’t. She is also a reader and has read books her parents didn’t want her to read. This turns out to be a good thing, because reading about different demons helps her out when she actually encounters them! I misunderstood the jacket description, so at first thought that Ai Ling was going to be a fighter. The fighting is done mainly by Chen Yong and Li Rong. Ai Ling has other talents she brings to the quest. Perhaps one of my favorite parts about the way that Ai Ling’s journey is handled is that when Ai Ling runs away to find her father, she doesn’t dress herself up as a boy. She doesn’t have to hide who she is or pretend to have her adventures.

Review: Written In Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Carolrhoda Books. 2009. Personal copy.

It’s About: Skeletons from the colonial era reveal details of the past; not just how people died, but how they lived. Walker follows the excavation of several graves, along with the study and research that accompanies each discovery. “Who were these people? What were their lives like?”

The Good: Non fiction books like this are so easy to booktalk — dead bodies! Photographs of skeletons! Mysterious deaths! I love the mystery, the exploration, and the answers that come from science, study, research.

Walker uses a handful of bodies to not just show the science but also to explore the history and lives of those Europeans and Africans who lived in the Virginia and Maryland region in the 1600s and 1700s. The book is full of photographs of the bodies, at all stages of study. How the bones and remains are studied and tested are explained, often with photographs or illustrations. Walker explains in a note that she limited the subject of this book to Europeans and Africans, “not to diminish the importance of Native Americans in the history of the Chesapeake region, but rather to respect the desire of their descendants to see their remains treated in a manner that respects their cultural customs.”

I adore this type of history and scientific study. For example, as a result of variations in diet, the carbon-13 found in bones can be measured and analyzed to determine where a person was born, raised, and how long that person had lived in North America. Often these graves are so old that there are no headstones or markers, so there is no direct way to know who the person was or when they died. Walker shows the process of how the historical record is used to try to pinpoint a person’s identity. Sometimes, a name is attached to a body; other times, not so much.

One section examined three lead coffins found in what would have been the area under St. Mary’s Chapel. Walker used this find to explain that the colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a safe haven for English Catholics. This is something that is often found in history books; Walker provides the “rest of the story” that isn’t often included, that religious freedom in Maryland ended in 1689. The lead coffins are a sign that those individuals were wealthy Catholics. Important people to get such an internment; yet, with the passage of time, the building disappeared and people forgot that bodies were even buried there. 

The second grave that fascinates me was a body found in the basement of a house, a hasty burial without coffin or respect. Did you know that sometimes people used their cellars not to store food but as a trash dump? An archaeologist explains, “people lived upstairs and dumped fish parts and pig parts and chamber pot contents and goodness knows what else down there.”

Imagine that. Imagine dumping that refuse in your cellar. Wouldn’t it smell? How healthy would that be? Why would you do that? And then I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books where the Ingalls were snowed in for days and days and days. As a grown up rereading the series, I’d wondered, where did they put the trash? Go to the bathroom? Is that why a basement was used as a trash pit? And then… as the chapter reveals… a body was buried in the basement. Treated like garbage. Hidden. Unknown. For hundreds of years, until the secret was revealed. What was it like, to live in that house? To know that body was there?

Written in Bone was also an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kelly at Stacked also geeks out over the science and history. Also check out fellow history lover Melissa Rabey’s review.

Review: Tofu Quilt

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell. Lee & Low Books. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Poems tell the story of Yeung Ying growing up in Hong Kong, from age five to twelve.

The Good: The poetry is simple but not simplistic; a tremendous amount is conveyed in a handful of words.

Yeung Ying first learns the power of story, of words, in several ways: as a small child, memorizing poetry brings the reward of dan lai, a special custard. She writes letters for her grandmother, is read stories by her teachers, and an older cousin says she could be a writer when she grows up. In short but powerful poems, one year a teacher makes her believe her dream is possible by saying “great work” and displaying her poetry while another teacher crushes her by calling a story the “worst story in the class.” Luckily, another year brings a teacher who praises her work and restores her confidence leading to Yeung Ying submitting a story to a paper. It is accepted: she is on her way.

Tofu Quilt is not just the story of a girl becoming a writer; it is also about a girl getting an education. Set in the 1960s, Yeung Ying’s family is repeatedly told by family and friends that educating a girl is a waste of money. The money could be spent elsewhere, Yeung Ying could be working to bring in money. Yeung Ying’s mother stands up repeatedly for her daughter, providing the schooling that makes it possible for Yeung Ying’s dreams to come true. While sexism is the primary reason for relatives counseling against the wisdom of educating a girl, another reason is that Yeung Ying’s family doesn’t have much money. Her father is a tailor and some times, work is good, like when American soldiers come over from Vietnam. Other times, not so much. Russel relates the family closing the door to avoid gossips seeing what they are and aren’t eating, and the “tofu quilt” her father makes from leftover fabric scraps.  

At the same time, Russel is portraying the worlds of Hong Kong and China. Yeung Ying writes letters for family members, because they cannot get visas to travel to see each other. Other details of life and politics are provided, creating a vibrant look at Yeung Ying’s world.

What age? I would recommend this to readers from third grade to sixth. The language, and Yeung Ying’s age, makes this appealing to the younger age group, while the topics (education, sexism, writing, career) have an appeal to the older readers.

Review: Shadowed Summer

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher. Book website.

The Plot: Iris and her best friend, Collette, are fourteen. It’s summer, a hot, humid Louisiana summer; the last summer of childhood. They play some of the make believe games of their childhood, but this year it’s different. Collette is flirting with their neighbor, Ben; and Iris sees a ghost — the ghost of Elijah, a teen who disappeared years before. He speaks to her: “where y’at, Iris?”

The Good: I love the description of Iris and Collette and their games of knights or witches or “whatever good things we thought up or got from our library books. We found magic everywhere, in the trees and the wind, in teacups and rainstorms. We were bigger than [our town of] Ondine, better than the ordinary people who came and went and never stopped to wonder what lay underneath the church’s tiger lilies to give them such bloodred hearts.” It is while playing at spells in the cemetery that Iris first hears and sees Elijah.

This is a story of two friends, Collette and Iris, with Iris (the narrator) still interested in their imaginary world while Collette will play only when boys can’t see. When Iris tells Ben “we can call up the dead tomorrow,” she does it to embarrass Collette and keep Ben away. Collette initially hushes her until she realizes Ben is interested. Then, Collette uses it. The triangle of Iris, Collette, and Ben is a quiet one, one that is equally about children growing unevenly to adulthood as it is about the feelings they have for each other. Iris is annoyed at Collette’s attention to Ben, Collette gets angry if Iris isn’t nice to Ben then gets jealous if Iris and Ben get along too well, and Ben … Ben is a fourteen year old boy, and he flirts with Collette but also with Iris. Each is growing into who they are, leaving behind childish things.

Iris sees a ghost. As she and her friends prepare to leave childhood behind, the most childish thing one could believe in — ghosts — visits her, talks to her, haunts her, wrecks her room. The ghost is real; and, it turns out, Elijah — the boy who died years before — has a connection to her family. It’s not coincidence that he appears to Iris. That Elijah is real is not just proven by a witchboard and the notes he leaves Iris, it’s proven as Iris solves the mystery of his disappearance and death. And yet — and yet — there is a part of me that wonders whether Elijah’s ghost was real, or whether it was Iris’s last grab at remaining a child. Elijah and her search for who he is, how he died, where his body is are all things that she can do, that she can act on, that can stop her from worrying about Collette drifting away and from the way Ben almost flirts with both of them and the inevitable changes that life brings. As Leila at Bookshelves of Doom put it,  “It’s a genuinely creepy ghost story, as well as a coming-of-age story.  And it’s also about how relationships between best friends can change, about a single father who works third shift and is raising a daughter and about life in a very small town.”

I enjoyed this interview with the author at Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith).

Review: Rosie and Skate

Rosie and Skate by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rosie, 15, and Skate, 16, are left alone in a falling-down Victorian when their dad, a drunk, serves three and a half months for shoplifting.  Their cousin Angie moves in to help out. Rosie, the shyer of the two, goes to meetings and hopes that this time her father stays sober. Skate, more cynical, moves in with her boyfriend’s mother while he’s away at college.  Together and apart, they try to figure out their lives.

The Good: Rosie and Skate is set at the Jersey Shore during the off-season, after all the tourists (cough MTV’s Jersey Shore crowd cough) go home. The author wisely creates her own towns (Ocean Heights High School, Little Mermaid, Sea Cove) while using recognizable landmarks (“Old Barney” (the Barnegat Lighthouse), Asbury Park Press, Ocean County College). It’s just the right mix of grounded details so that someone like me, who is familiar with the area, knows where it is, but just enough freedom for Baumann to create a geography that works for her story. My favorite part? The train Skate takes to Rutgers to visit her boyfriend, Perry. A handful of you are sitting up straight saying, “New Brunswick isn’t on the North Jersey Coast line.” To which I say, Baumann never says Skate doesn’t change trains.

The real shore is the shore after summer ends, when the crowds and tourists go away, the party ends, life returns. What I love about Baumann’s use of an off-season tourist town is it works as a metaphor for the family. The party: the family great grandparents, that could afford to build a beachfront Victorian complete with butler’s pantry. The party: the drinks that warm and make one glowy and happy and dizzy. The season ends; and now the house is falling down and leaking and full of splinters and decay, the rooms shut up, just like Rosie and Skate’s family has come undone, with a dead mother, a father in jail, grandparents summering in Florida, and the sisters not even living together. The season ends; and getting drunk is not the fun laughs, it’s a father passed out on the sun porch and stealing his child’s summer job money from her sock drawer.

Both sisters have been affected by their father’s drinking, but both deny it. Rosie is shy and lonely and wants friendship and love; both to be loved and to love. She awkwardly tries to connect with a classmate, Nick, who she meets an an Alateen-like meeting. Awkward, because she’s not quite sure what to do, how to balance what she needs with what she wants with what is smart.

Skate (really Olivia, but nicknamed for her skateboarding) is in love with Perry, and Perry loves her, but he is now a freshman at Rutgers. Skate lives with Perry’s mother, an understanding woman who gives the motherless Skate just enough support, love and mothering without overwhelming her or chasing her away. Problem is, Julia is also Perry’s mother and Perry, while professing his love for Skate, calls less and less and visits less and less. Julia is in a tough place, wanting what is best for both Perry and Skate, knowing that what is best may not be what makes them happy. Skate reacts the way she reacted to her father being put in jail: running away. Instead of running back to her home, she runs instead to her boss, Frank. Frank is twenty-one and has a line of girlfriends and it is a credit to Baumann that as the friendship between Skate and Frank deepens I never once thought, “eww” or “oh, she’s just looking for a father figure.”

Together, Rosie and Skate are sisters who know they can always depend on each other whether or not they sleep in the same house. They also learn that sometimes, despite what history has taught them, they can depend on other people.

Review: Bayou Volume One

Bayou Volume One by Jeremy Love. Zuda Comics / DC Comics. 2009. Review copy borrowed from friend. Graphic Novel.

The Plot: Charon, Mississippi, 1933. Two ten year old little girls are playing, Lee and Lily. One black, one white. One lie results in Lee’s father arrested and a lynching feared. To save her father, Lee leaves her familiar world behind for a world of monsters,a world just as dangerous as the segregated south she leaves behind.

The Good: The cover of Bayou shows two girls playing, one monster looking from the trees as a giant hand reaches up from the water. The darkness of Bayou is shown in the first few panels: the feet of a young African American boy, a tree, blood dripping, white men watching — a lynching. The reader is introduced to Lee and her father as they are paid to retrieve the body of the dead boy from the bayou. (Sound familiar? The dead boy, Billy, whistled at a white woman; the notes at the end show he was originally named Emmet.) When real monsters are later introduced in the fantastical world Lee enters, the reader cannot help but think that there were monsters in the world Lee has left behind.

When Lee’s white friend, Lily, loses her necklace, she fears a beating from her mother so accuses Lee of taking it. Lee is forced to work for Lily’s mother for free to make up the cost. Lily, realizing what she has done and wanting Lee to like her again, goes in search of the necklace. What the girls don’t know — but the reader does, from the artwork — is something lurks in the bayou, something monstrous that took Lily’s necklace when he reached for her throat and missed. When Lily again enters the bayou, the monster takes her as a horrified Lee watches. Lee’s father is arrested, blamed for her disappearance, Lee’s protests ignored. To save her father Lee must find Lily, so she enters the bayou and encounters the monsters and figures it contains.

There is the monster who ate Lily whole, Cotton Eye Joe. Billy, the boy who was lynched, has been transformed into a winged creature who offers some guidance. Bayou is large and scary, and Lee initially fears him, but she discovers he is good hearted and he risks his own life to help Lee. The fantasy world unfolds, clearly influenced by the real world and its historical terrors. Bayou is hunted by a cavalry of hounds wearing confederate uniforms. Jim Crows are actual crows.

Lee moves from one nightmare world, 1933 Mississippi, to one equally dangerous. In both worlds, she speaks up, takes action — in both, her goal is the same: save her father. Her chance of success is, ironically enough, more likely to happen in the supernatural world she enters. In the bayou, despite the dangers, Lee has more power and more allies than in the “real” world.

Review: The Uninvited

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Angela Dawe. 2010. Candlewick. 2009. Listened to on audiobook supplied by publisher.

The Plot: It seemed like a good idea. Mimi Shapiro escapes New York City after an eventful freshman year that included an affair with an older professor who won’t stop calling. Mimi goes to the Canadian cottage of her father, artist Marc Soto, expecting solitude. Instead she finds musician Jackson “Jay” Page, 22, who has been using the cottage as a music studio.

Jackson, rather than reacting like a squatter who has been caught, acts as if Mimi is the intruder. He suspects her of the odd things that have been going on: a dead bird and snake skin left at the cottage.

What Mimi and Jay don’t know, as they eye each other with suspicion, is that someone is watching from the shadows.

The Good: Count this as one of those hard to write reviews, because I don’t want to give too much away!

There are three main characters to this story: Mimi, Jay, and Cramer Lee, the watcher. The prologue begins with Cramer’s story, a young man whose life is all about taking care of his mother. Cramer’s mother is an artist, who has good moments and bad moments and tends to have bad boyfriends. Cramer is always there to pick up the pieces, to work the steady jobs to pay the bills. At twenty two, he’s in low wage jobs because instead of going away to college he stayed home to take care of his mother. The reader would think, then, that this is Cramer’s story so that he is the hero. The prologue ends with his mother demanding he steal a necklace.

Suddenly, the story shifts to Mimi in her car, on an adventure, a road trip, to the cottage her father hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It says a lot about her father that he never tells her that he had given permission to Jay to use it as a studio; and he never tells Mimi about Jay at all. Mimi and Jay’s friendship begins with the shared cottage and the odd happenings. Is there anything scarier than realizing that your home is not safe? That it’s been violated? That someone has gone through your things? All the worst by, well, nothing big really happening. A dead bird outside a door? A rock missing from a window ledge?

The story shifts again, to Cramer’s point of view, to his own explanations for what he has done.

Who is the uninvited? Mimi, Jay, Cramer?

The suspense builds and builds, almost unbearably. As the reader watches Cramer watch Jay and Mimi, it seems like Cramer is more villain than hero, that he is a stalker. And yet, and yet — there seems to be more to him. And Cramer has his reasons. As the summer goes by, the reader learns more about Jay, about Mimi, about Cramer. The suspense becomes not just “what will happen next in the cottage,” but, also, what will happen with these three? Will their paths all cross? What about the professor who won’t stop calling Mimi? Is Cramer’s mother finding her path as an artist, or slipping into darkness?

In addition to the friendships, relationships, and mystery of this book, The Uninvited also offers something not always found in books for teens: three college-age students. Mimi has just finished her freshman year, Jay has just graduated, Cramer is in his early twenties. They are old enough to be on their own, old enough to work. Yet, they are still all their parents’ children. Jay is taking a year off before graduate school because his mother supports his music. Mimi has left New York City for an independent summer, but it’s independence made possible by her father’s house and, one assumes, both her parents money as she never worries about a job to pay for groceries and bills. Cramer works two jobs to pay the bills, watches others follows dreams, yet remains tied to his mother. He cannot abandon her, as so many others have. Their age allows all three to have a certain level of freedom from parental oversight, but each still is caught in familiar child-parent patterns and dependencies that a teen reader may identify with.

Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. 2009. Borrowed copy. All ages.

It’s About: Illustrated short stories, set in the familiar world of the suburbs. Only, not so much.

The Good: Each of these short stories takes place in the suburbs, but for each there is something just a little — off. Not quite typical. The suburbs, but looking at it sideways, out of the corner of your eye, thinking both “that is strange” and “no, it’s not” at the same time.

First is the water buffalo, with the unnamed narrator telling the reader, “when I was a kid, there was a water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed.” One would almost think, “oh, the children are imagining it!”

As future stories slowly include more fantastical elements, one thinks back and realizes — there really WAS a water buffalo in the lot! Together, these stories create a world that offers the reader both something magical and something mundane, because over and over people take things in stride.

In Eric, the story is about a foreign exchange student. The text seems perhaps a bit quirky: “We had repainted the spare room, bought new rugs and furniture, and generally made sure everything would be comfortable for him. So I can’t say why it was that Eric chose to sleep and study most of the time in our kitchen pantry.” The illustrations show that Eric is a small, odd person that looks like a leaf with legs. No matter what happens or what Eric does, Mum just says “it must be a cultural thing.” Calmly, accepting.

My favorite may be grandpa’s story, where grandpa explains just what he means when he says “of course, weddings were more complicated in those days, not the short ‘n’ sweet kind you see today.” The “more complicated” is, if anything, an understatement with the pictures adding even more layers of complications.

The nameless holiday (about, well, a nameless holiday that “happens once a year, usually around late August, sometimes October“) has this powerful language: “He always knows exactly which objects are so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart, and it’s only these that he nudges tenderly until they become hooked onto his great antlers. . . . What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight to your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And then there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.”

Some of the stories are humorous; some tragic; some with a clear message; others, entertaining. The slightly tilted world may be about people, holidays, customs, or a place. Each, in its own way, is haunting. Is this my suburbia, and I just haven’t noticed? Or have I just thought something like “it must be a cultural thing“?

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

Tales of the Madman Underground (An Historical Romance 1973) by John Barnes. Viking. 2009. Reviewed from ARC from a conference.

The Plot: Lightsburg, Ohio, 1973. Karl Shoemaker has a simple resolution for his senior year: don’t get the “ticket,” the slip of paper from school that sends him to group therapy during school hours. Instead, be normal for just this one year.

Normal? Is normal his mother, sometimes drunk, sometimes stoned, sometimes stealing his money, sometimes talking about her flying saucers and Nixon theories? Is normal his five jobs that earns him the money he hides in jars around his house to stop his mother from stealing? Is normal his dead father, whose legacy was several pages of “how to fix things” to keep their falling down house in some semblance of order? What about the cats who treat the entire house as a litter box? Then there’s Karl’s own drinking which he stopped doing last year and he is now the youngest person at AA meetings with, perhaps, the most boring story there. What is normal?

The Plot: I wasn’t so sure about Karl at first. Didn’t know what to make of him. Karl narrates the story, which takes place from Wednesday, September 5, 1973 to Monday, September 10, 1973. While the story takes place during only a handful of days, Karl also fills us in on his past. Karl is not so much an unreliable narrator as one who takes his time telling you things, and doesn’t do so in a linear fashion. The story and narrative all make sense, and ultimately all the pieces fit together to give you a picture of Karl, his friends, his family, his town.

I went in with very little knowledge of Karl; it’s a Printz Honor, but I remained unspoiled. The “madman underground” is the nickname given to themselves by the students in group therapy; some have lives and friendships outside the group, some do not. All have their own brand of horror story, sometimes because of something they did, or something someone did to them. Karl’s fellow madmen are in group therapy for “weird” behavior or for issues of disrespect, anger, violence; the friends know there is more to each of their stories, including abuse, alcoholism, incest.  Because they know each other’s true stories, and because they all believe the hell they know is better than the hell they don’t, their stories aren’t fully known by adults. Even when they are known, the adults look the other way, ignore it, pretend it isn’t true. Take, for instance, Karl. His dead father, one-time mayor and recovering alcoholic, was well known and respected in town. His mother’s drinking and his home life isn’t exactly a secret. Yet all those “good buddies” of his dad do little to help mother or son. No wonder Karl is angry – angry enough that he has earned the nickname “Psycho.”

What Karl did to be called “Psycho” is shocking, softened only by it being something that happened in his past. When, in the present, people believe him capable of certain acts because he is “Psycho Shoemaker,” part of me also wonders. What is Karl really capable of? Tales of the Madman Underground gives us an answer: Karl is capable of taking care of himself and taking care of others.

Abuse, alcoholism, psycho. Sounds pretty heavy – but this book is also funny. Sometimes funny in a black humor type of way, sometimes funny in a laugh out loud way. Karl on his math teacher: “Mrs. Hertz wasn’t really a pushover. No math teacher can be because they can see your bullshit too easy. But she was nice, and she hated to say “you’re wrong,” and best of all, she was as heavy a smoker as my mother, so between classes she was always charging down to the teachers’ lounge to suck down those nasty skinny brown almost-cigars, and it usually made her a couple minutes late to class, so there was more socializing and less math in my life.”

Karl is trying to take steps to create a life for himself. One of those steps? He’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a bit refreshing to have a book where the teen is in AA, and the story is not about being in AA. It’s just a part of who Karl is.

Longtime readers know I tend to question why a book is set in the past, especially the past that just so happens to be when the author was a teen. Cynically I wonder, is it because they feel they don’t know about teens today? If that is the answer, their book should be for adults, not teens. Is it a sort of navel-gazing, “this was important to me so it’s important to everyone”? If that is the answer, well, it’s a bit self centered.

For Tales of the Madman Underground, the answer was simple. It is a book for teens; it is a book that had to be set in the past. These teens are broken and have put themselves back together, either by themselves or with the help of their friends. They are each other’s family. If this had been set in today’s world, readers would scoff, “someone would have called the police,” “that would never be tolerated,” “someone would have done something.” 1973 allows the reader to believe, “oh, it’s different today. Teens today don’t have to suffer in silence.” But teenagers reading this? Will know that what was true in 1973 is true today.