Okay for Now by Gary D Schmidt, 368 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE
If you read my review of Gary D Schmidt's book The Wednesday Wars, you might know that Okay for Now plucks a minor character from Holling Hoodhood's story and shines the spotlight on what turns out to be a very dramatic year in the life of Doug Swieteck. And, if you read my review you also know that, while I have long wanted to read both of these books, the anticipation of a possible Newbery Award this year for Okay for Now (The Wednesday Wars won the Newbery Honor in 2008) put a flame under me. One of the perks of reading this book several months after publication is the opportunity to read the thoughts of esteemed critics and utilize them to help me organize my own opinion and ideas about this novel. Another helpful organizing principle is the added perspective that comes from knowing that this book has been talked about as a potential Newbery winner since before it was published. With all this in mind, I started reading Okay for Now with the goal to apply a critical and comparative eye to the book - comparing it with the other amazing books I have read this year that are also getting Newbery buzz while also comparing it to The Wednesday Wars. That was my intent, anyway. Once I opened the book I was sucked into the story so completely that I lost track of everything outside of Marysville, NY, the setting for Okay for Now. I read it almost from cover to cover and with an industrial size box of tissues by my side - after all, I had just finished The Wednesday Wars and had a pretty good idea of the emotional wallop I was in for. Now, in the wake of this book, I am trying to decide what I can add to a discussion of Okay for Now.
After I finished the book and wiped my nose a few more times I began to read the reviews. The best review I read was by Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes. Jonker wrote his review in the form of a list of stats, something that main character and New York Yankees fan Doug occasionally uses to sum up his daily experiences in Okay for Now. In his succinct, precise review Jonker hit on all the stand-out aspects of the book and ended his list with, "Beautifully unexpected moments: too many to count. Schmidt's book had me feeling more emotion - sadness, happiness, and everything in between - than any other book I've read this year." Over at fuse #8 Betsy Bird praises Schmidt's ability to "allow his villains some complexity. It takes a certain kind of author to create an unlikable individual (not hard), display them in an honest way through a child's perceptions (harder), then somehow manage to, if not redeem that person, at least show that there's another side to them in a way a kid can believe (unbelievably difficult). Stock two-dimensional characters have their place in the world but a novel like Okay for Now works because each bad person has something about them that humanizes them" Bird also praises Schmidt for his skill in taking a subject that is "primarily of interest to adults, and making that subject palatable to a child audience." In this case, it is the paintings of John Audubon that provide a storyline that is personally fulfilling for Doug in a couple of ways. Doug is encouraged to and accepts instruction in drawing from the librarian, Mr Powell, and learns to draw the birds that he sees on display at the local library. His interest in the birds and his irritation at the selling off of pages from Audubon's original portfolio in an effort to fill the town council's coffers gives Doug a purpose and project that becomes a driving force for him. Interestingly enough, a first edition of John Audubon's Birds of America goes on auction at Christie's today. The company reports that this is one of 120 copies of the book in existence, contains 435 "lushly hand-colored engravings" and is expected to fetch as much as $11 million dollars. Richard Peck, Newbery winner himself, reviewed Okay for Now for The New York Times and made some points that other reviewers have also noted. While his review was positive, it wasn't quite as glowing as others. He did point out that the book is "crowded with more incident and empowerment than any eighth-grade year or novel can quite contain. Events stretch credulity. At one point, Doug turns up briefly on the Broadway stage, playing a female role, no less. But Schmidt is a master of the unlikely." Other reviewers have noted the unlikely Broadway play plot thread in the book and the ways in which Schmidt weaves in many other threads that "stretch credulity," to use Peck's words. Having read Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars back to back while also trying to consider the Medal worthy aspects of this book, these credulity stretching points stand out, not so much as detractions from the story and the quality of the writing but as enhancements to both.
Toward the very end of the book Doug says, "You know one thing that Mr Powell taught me? He taught me that sometimes, art can make you forget everything else around you. That's what art can do." I think that this could possibly be the thesis for the novel, if not my review. Art can sometimes make you forget everything else around you and, as a work of art, Okay for Now definitely achieves that. When thinking about this book and considering the criticisms, it is important to remember that art IS art - not real life. We love art because it can show us real life in a frozen, sometimes impossible moment that is not reality but helps us to understand or experience reality in a new way. Art is more than reality, it is hyper-reality or condensed reality. That is what the various, sometimes incredulous plot threads of Okay for Now are for me - a kind of hyper-condensed reality. Schmidt takes almost a lifetime worth of experiences, revelations, connections, empowerment and awakening and packs it into one year of his main character's life. The story becomes a work of art because of the superlative skill with which Schmidt crafts these various threads and weaves them together into something both coherent and greater than the whole. The real brilliance, the true art of Schmidt's writing for me is in the vividness his characters. As the narrator, we see the world through Doug's eyes and we only know what he wants us to know. While Doug definitely has secrets he wants to keep - he frequently stops himself mid-sentence in his narration or flat out tells the reader something is "none of your business" - he also has an artist's eye for the world around him. He sees the beauty and feels the meaning in his mother's smile and in the color of Lil Spicer's hair. He also sees the pain and suffering of those around him. Whether it is the PE coach who has been hounding him mercilessly or his disabled, bitter older brother, Doug's empathy shows more in his actions than words. The impact of watching Doug grow as a character over the course of the novel is powerful because of the artistic way in which Schmidt orchestrates his plot and employs the characters in ways that are authentic to their personalities but also as a means to reaching the climactic points in the story. In some ways, Schmidt can be considered a miniaturist who paints a richly detailed scene on a very small canvas. Somehow, though, Schmidt takes the small canvas of Doug Swieteck's life and adds a framework of historical and cultural significance that reflects the tumultuous era in American history. It is the complexity and density of this story, which in some ways is unrealistic, that allows the reader to experience this slice of fictional reality in a more immediate, memorable way that elevates this book to a work of art.
I know that I wrote more about the themes and significance of Okay for Now and not much about the plot itself. What follows is a synopsis of the book that tries to keep plot twists a surprise but also mentions plot points that will help you decide when and to which reader you might give this book.
Doug Swieteck is the youngest of three boys and, until Joe Pepitone gave him his baseball cap, he had never owned anything that had not been worn by a Swieteck. His older brother is mercilessly brutal when it comes to Doug and, as we learn from Doug himself, his oldest brother Lucas has a serious attitude problem that Doug tries hard not to share. Doug's father, a violent hothead, loses his job and moves the family upstate to Marysville, NY where he has been promised a job at the Ballard Paper Mill. Doug arrives at the start of a long, hot, dry summer but quickly meets a constellation of people who will change his life, beginning with a visit to the library and a viewing of John Audubon's painting of an arctic tern. In The Wednesday Wars Schmidt employed a stern but caring English teacher with one free afternoon a week during which she introduces the main character to the works of Shakespeare. In Okay for Now Schmidt uses Audubon's paintings of birds as the framework for Doug's transformation over the course of his eighth grade year, which takes place in 1968 - 1969. While Doug does have teachers who take an interest in his welfare, he spends more time interacting with the insipid Principal Peattie who always refers to himself in the third person and judges Doug solely on the actions of his delinquent older brother and with his PE teacher. Doug's PE teacher, a veteran of the Vietnam war who runs his PE class like a drill sergeant, takes an immediate dislike to Doug and instigates one of the most painful scenes in the book as well as one of the most moving. Doug finds attentive, caring adults in the form of Mr Ballard, owner of the paper mill and horseshoe enthusiast, and Mr Powell, librarian and artist. When Doug decides that it is his mission to return the six Audubon paintings that the town council has sold off, he encounters even more interesting people, places and things that take him from the library of a playwright to the living room of a Philharmonic flutist and eventually to a Broadway stage, with additional plot twists thrown in.