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: 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.