The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, superb illustrations by Matt Phelan, was a hard book for me to read. Since it won the Newbery Award in January of 2007 it has garnered extra attention because the word "scrotum" appears on the first (and last) page of the book. In February of 2008, Julie Bosman explored the debate in her New York Times article With One Word, Children's Book Sets Off Uproar. Also, I think to some people, the choice of Patron's books over others published in 2007 was questionable. There has been some grumbling of late about the number of recent Newbery picks that have contemporary social issues as their subject matter. I am going to try to push all of this to the sides of my brain and write a review about this book and just this book.
Lucky, the main character of The Higher Power of Lucky, is a ten year old living in Hard Pan, California, population 43. It was 42 after her mother died, but then Brigitte came to take care of Lucky and it was back to 43. Brigitte is a French woman who was married to Lucky's father before he was her father. Not wanting to have a child, he is not much of a father to Lucky. And, while Brigitte is a loving guardian to Lucky, she knows that she misses her home in France. The meandering plot of the book follows Lucky as she works her job, sweeping up at Hard Pan's Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center where she also finds time to listen through a hole in the wall to the discussions that go on during the twelve-step anonymous meetings that are held there. That is where she overhears Short Sammy tell the story of hitting rock bottom and deciding to quit drinking. His rock bottom involves his dog being bit on the scrotum by a rattle snake and his wife taking him to the vet in the next town because Short Sammy is too drunk to drive. His dog survives, but his wife leaves him and takes the dog with her.
The book is filled with quirky characters doing quirky things as well as Lucky's quirky way of looking at them and life. This book is almost like the young adult novel version of the 1990s television show Northern Exposure, which was about quirky people in a small Alaskan town. There is Lucky's friend Lincoln who, according to Lucky, has a brain secretion that makes him want to tie knots all the time. He is an expert at it and has researched it copiously, even though his mother wants so much for him to be president of the United States that she has named him after three of them. There is five year old Miles, being raised by his grandmother while his mother does time in jail on drug related charges. Lucky gathers this knowledge during a Smokers Anonymous meeting and keeps it to herself for most of the book. These are the only children in the story. The rest of the characters are adult like the Captain who sorts the mail, Dot who has a beauty salon and Short Sammy who lives in a water tank.
The climax of the book comes when Lucky, who has begun to suspect that Brigitte is planning to return to France, decides to run away during a dust storm. Her plans don't go quite as expected, but she does rescue Miles and remove a cholla burr from his heel as well as a moth that has flown into her ear and won't leave. Most of the town is looking for the two of them and when they find Lucky and Miles she takes the opportunity to turn it into a memorial service for her mother and scatters her ashes, which she has included in her survival kit backpack, while they all look on. The day ends with Lucky safe and cleaned up and ready for bed getting a big hug from Brigitte while she explains that the papers were out because she was planning to adopt Lucky. In the last chapter of the book, Brigitte is the owner of the successful Hard Pan Cafe and Lucky is still working at the Hard Pan Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center where she has recently plugged up the hole in the wall with Fix-All.
As you may know, I am only lately coming to appreciate realistic fiction for young adults. Fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction are my preferred genres. Despite this, I think that The Higher Power of Lucky is an interesting book rich with unique details that will entertain readers, both girl and boy. However, I do feel that Lucky seems to think and act younger than the ten year old fifth grader that her character is. I am sure that, as an only child growing up in a small town with not many children and no television will allow a child to mature at a reasonable pace, unlike the media saturated "tweens" that roam the malls today. Despite this, it was jarring to me as I was reading along and found Lucky sitting in a fifth grade classroom but I am sure it would not seem out of place for a young reader.
Susan Patron does an intensive job getting inside Lucky's head and explaining her way of thinking and ideas regarding all sorts of things from ants to government cheese. The vivid words and descriptions that fill her writing brings to mind what the creations in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum must look like - jumbles of kaleidoscopic, colorful, jangly everyday things, or in the case of this book, words, dangling about in bunches. And, while I liked the abounding details most of the time, I found myself thinking often of Polly Horvath and her wonderful novels which are less cluttered and slightly less quirky, but rich with details nonetheless. My One Hundred Adventures, which was published in September of 2008, is the story of twelve year old Jane and is filled with interesting adults, just like the town of Hard Pan and is my favorite book by Horvath thus far. Actually, Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle which won the Newbery Honor in 2002 is more akin to The Higher Power of Lucky in terms of unique (and sometimes just flat out odd) adults and a child in a precarious family situation.
In March of 2009 Lucky and the inhabitants of Hard Pan are back with Lucky Breaks, again with magnificent, gently expressive illustrations by Matt Phelan. Lucky makes a new friend, Paloma, Miles invites the whole town to his sixth birthday party, and a wild burro visits Brigitte's Hard Pan Cafe, among other things...
If your reader liked The Higher Power of Lucky try:
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath