Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.

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.)