Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now
Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.
13 year old in a new middle school
Though Okay for Now is marketed as a young adult novel, it had me riveted. It is hopefully destined to win a Newbery. It is that good. The author, Gary Schmidt, has won Newbery honors for other books but not the actual award. This one deserves it.
The book’s protagonist, Doug Swieteck, a thirteen year old boy, comes from a working class family in New York. It is 1968, the US is preparing to put a man on the moon, his oldest brother is in Vietnam, his next oldest might or might not be a juvenile delinquent and his father is an angry, abusive and shadowy man who has just lost his job.
Doug likes baseball, the New York Yankees especially, and like many boys, keeps statistics on them and also tallies up other things in his life. He is close to his mother, a silently suffering and often submissive woman, who nonetheless is the family glue. Later in the story we see what this closeness has cost him, but for most of Okay for Now, we see how he struggles with his eventual love of art, his softer side and negotiating the hard realities of middle school and the world.
Doug is not particularly optimistic about life. His one great possession is a baseball cap of Joe Pepitone’s that is eventually taken and traded away by his brother. He wants to talk to his father about it, “[B]ut it was the wrong day. Most days are the wrong day.” He starts to ask his father to take him to a Yankees’ game so he can get another baseball cap, but again, “I picked a wrong day. Because there aren’t any right days….My father’s hands are quick. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
And then Doug’s father announces that they are moving upstate to the small town of Marysville.
Okay for Now: Book review
All this has happened in the first five pages of a 360 page book. The writing is spare, with a keen eye for details and dialogue (I particularly love the scene where Doug’s first friend in the new town, a girl, teaches him how to drink a really cold Coke, gulping it all down very fast and then burping so loudly, “it made the birds fly out of the maples…”), that add up to one of the most engaging novels I have read in a long time.
Okay for Now is also overlaid with Doug’s discovery of a book on display in the Marysville library of Audubon's Birds of America. Doug is not the kind of boy who spends time reading or in libraries (a secret about his inability to read finally emerges), but he is bored in the new town and it is summer when they move there. He is taken with the Audubon plates.
An older man who works in the library takes Doug “under his wing” and teaches him to draw and to really see how Audubon sees and thinks. Doug has his own thoughts about the birds and what they are thinking, which we understand as projections of his inner world.
“But Audubon knew something about composition: he kept the top of the bird’s back as straight as the horizon, right smack in the middle of the scene, with a beak held up just as flat and just as straight, and an eye that said I know where I belong. You couldn’t help but be a little jealous of this bird.”
I can’t help but be a little jealous of the writing! The language, how Doug’s inner awareness and perceptions of art are deftly used to convey Doug’s character, tell me he is a reliable narrator and a hugely engaging character.
Okay for Now: Book review
Every chapter opens with a reprint of an Audubon bird plate that is used as the thematic center of that chapter and is woven into all the others. Doug learns to draw and finds with time and persistence, he is talented. At first he hides this from his family and his new girlfriend. But soon, it is what redeems him, gives him something to believe in and work for.
One day Doug arrives at the library and a picture he wants to see again is missing. He discovers that the town is so poor that the library’s trustees have been selling off pages of the Audubon folio. Doug makes it his mission to find them, and restore the book to its wholeness. It is this mission that also serves to bring the disparate aspects of himself into a more cohesive whole. There are many other threads woven into this story. Doug’s first girlfriend and her family help him get a job as a grocery delivery boy. He meets a lot of townspeople who also figure in his growth.
Several of his teachers at school are by turns supportive or antagonistic towards him. Doug learns to temper his “I don’t care, stupid school” attitude and eventually wins respect from those who were formerly foes.
His brother returns from Vietnam badly injured and confined to a wheelchair but again Doug finds a way to help him and another vet, his nemesis of a Physical Education teacher, Coach Reed, get together.
And in a very unlikely turn, Doug and his girlfriend Lil, end up acting in a Broadway play without any other theater training. Nonetheless, it is a vehicle for another turn in the story where Doug must face his fears and provide strength to Lil.
Okay for Now: Book review
Granted, Okay for Now is written from the perspective of a middle schooler ,but the writing is terrific and I couldn’t put it down. Part of the story is so disturbing,(an event that has occurred between Doug and his father before the story begins but which comes out at his school), that I wonder if a middle school person would really understand the depth of the pain it engenders. And as a parent, I still recoil thinking about that grisly scene of Doug’s betrayal by his father. I don’t want to give it away, but it is almost unbelievable, and his father’s contrition and resolution at the end of the book is also not enough, in my opinion.
That said, these are subjective experiences and there are so many fine elements to this story.
Read more of Suzanne's reviews.
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