Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Publication Date: 4/5/11
Publisher: Clarion Books
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Blurb (GR): Midwesterner Gary D. Schmidt won Newbery Honor awards for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boys and The Wednesday Wars, two coming-of-age novels about unlikely friends finding a bond. Okay For Now, his latest novel, explores another seemingly improbable alliance, this one between new outsider in town Doug Swieteck and Lil Spicer, the savvy spitfire daughter of his deli owner boss. With her challenging assistance, Doug discovers new sides of himself. Along the way, he also readjusts his relationship with his abusive father, his school peers, and his older brother, a newly returned war victim of Vietnam.
Gary Schmidt’s earlier work, The Wednesday Wars, introduced readers to Doug Swieteck as a secondary character, but Doug takes front stage in Okay For Now, its 2011 companion novel. While they are both quirky, Okay For Now is riddled with darkness that its predecessor didn’t have, and that kind of heaviness usually appeals to me, at least when it is well done. After reading both of these books, Gary Schmidt has shot himself in the foot going forward; From here on out, I’ll be expecting perfection. I know he can do it, considering both The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now are pretty darn close to achieving that feat. Before last week, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to like the second book more than the first but here I am, telling you that I liked it just as much, if not more.
Seventh-grade Doug moves with his family to the small town of Marysville after his father loses his job. While their family may not have fit in perfectly in their prior Long Island town, it is a rough transition considering all these new people don’t yet know about the Swieteck family’s notoriety—namely Doug’s bully brother and their father’s drinking problem and fast hands. That last topic was particularly well-done in Okay For Now, disregarding a section of the ending. I felt the tension hanging in the air and feared for the characters in certain scenes. It was absolutely a book I spoke to aloud, but that’s nothing new for me. The scenes that are always the worst for me are the ones when people are doing wonderful things, inspiring things, but I know a shadow is coming because of it.
Each chapter of the book is prefaced by the inclusion of a black and white copy of a print from John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Before I started reading, I stared at each bird, analyzing what was going on in the picture and what Doug would think of it. When Doug gets to Marysville, he ends up getting a job delivering groceries to all the townspeople from the local deli (run by the father of Doug’s new crush, Lil Spicer) and he finds a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America in the empty second floor of the local library, which is only open on Saturdays. (Check out that link to see the sheer size of the book.) Over time, Doug’s fascination with the prints is encouraged by one of the librarians and the two of them have weekly discussions about the intentions of the artist and how Doug can improve his own artwork. Because Okay For Now is written in first person narrative style, Doug’s voice comes through crystal clear and just looking at the pictures added to the expectations, good and bad, of what was to come.
He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he were trying to turn but couldn’t. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in.
This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.
It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen.
The most beautiful.
I leaned down onto the glass, close to the bird. I think I started to breathe a little bit more quickly, since the glass fogged up and I had to wipe the wet away. But I couldn’t help it. Dang, he was so alone. He was so scared. (p. 19 of hardcover edition)
As with a lot of middle grade books (and a lot of books in general), so much of the novel concentrated on what it means to be a good person. Some of the characters exist seemingly to provide consistent rays of hope to Doug (his mother, Mr. Ballard and Mr. Powell), while others are constant trials. Some reviewers have mentioned their problems with one character in particular, and that is Doug’s father. I want to comment on the ending of this book so just skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. I didn’t have a problem with the ending of this book. Mr. Swieteck is a disgusting character and I certainly don’t believe that he would stop being so and then the entire family will forget his years of systematic abuse. The ending presents Mr. Swieteck with the platter of problems he has created, all coming back to him. He’s stolen from one son, treated another like garbage, and yet another is facing a trail and potential jail time for his father’s actions. It is entirely realistic to me that someone in that position might have a moment of clarity—What have I done to myself and my family, who all hate me? I actually like where the book leaves off that part of the story because it is in a place of optimism. For a younger audience of readers, it might be a sign of hope that people can change. The reality of the situation actually made the ending sad for me. It is just a snapshot of a calm moment and the real change, if it ever comes, will be gradual.
There is so much more to this book—Doug and Lil’s relationship, the ups and downs of the townspeople’s treatment of Doug based on local hearsay, Doug’s reading adventures through Jane Eyre, Mrs. Windermere and a theatrical debut, Doug’s brother returning from the Vietnam war, the gym teacher harassing Doug to no end and several other plot points that would be absolute spoilers if I included them. But if I went on any longer, I’d probably go on forever. And that is the best indicator of things, isn’t it? I’d recommend this to basically anyone, but specifically to librarians who want a reminder of what they can do for even one person, to teachers for the same reason, to anyone who likes to think about what the artist or author was thinking about while creating their work, and to anyone who likes to put their heart through the wringer once in a while.
Catie challenged me to read this book for our She Made Me Do It feature and she unsurprisingly knew I would adore it. Thanks, Catie.