Monday, March 16, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Strand Tall by Joan Bauer is not a new book, having been published in 2002. But we want our books to have life for more than a year, right? And more are published each year than we can possibly read when new, right? I've noticed that when I read books recommended online, they tend to be new, and when I browse my library I check out a lot of books that are, shall we say, recent, but not the latest thing. And there's gold in every pile. Random comment: This is a mid-grade novel with a YA sticker on the spine. Nobody knows a chapter book from a MG from a YA anymore.

Plot summary: Tree is twelve, and he's 6'3" and growing. Everyone thinks he's in high school and he's not, everyone thinks he should be a basketball player and he's not (even though he's on the team), and he thinks his parents should be married -- and they're not. They waited to split until his two older brothers were in college. Why didn't they wait for him to leave home, he wonders? Do even they forget that he isn't as old as he looks? Why do the athletes in his school get nicknames like Fire and Boomerang, and the nonathletes get ones like Tree, Mole and Snot? Fortunately, Tree has his grandpa, a widowed Viet Nam vet recovering from an amputation who both helps him and needs his help, and a new friend, Sophie, who needs a friend to accept her as she is just as Tree does. And even in the face of greater loss, they all help each other through.

Okay, this is probably spoiler territory. They say voice is everything, and this book has great voice. It's honest, terse, and often funny. The paragraphs are short, often just one-liners, and Tree's third person POV is seasoned with just the right amount of author comment to keep readers resonating with the insights yet remain believable for a "guy book." But my personal opinion is that character trumps voice -- to the extent that the aspects of a novel are separable, of course, which they never really are. Grandpa, Dad, Tree, and Tree's brothers make a pretty funny male household at Christmas time, what with visits from the volunteer lady who has a crush on Grandpa, a pet parrot that will only say "Back off, Buster" despite Grandpa's attempts to teach it "You're certainly looking handsome today, Leo," and the rope-and-basket system they've rigged up to send food to Grandpa in the living room. Tree's mother is a super-organized type who always wants her sons to talk about their feelings -- by communicating through a website called Yet even Christmas at her place turns upside down when her visiting sister lights the fireplace without the flue open, filling the house with smoke, and her sister's dog pukes on the rug. After a flood that almost wipes out the town, after Tree realizes that his parents really don't get along, and after the Memorial Day Parade and ceremony in which Tree is the only person able to block the wind so that "a candle of hope can be lit," the book ends like this:

The purpose of a bagpipe is to reach deep into the heart.
Everything's got a purpose, really -- you just have to look for it.
Cats are good at keeping old dogs alive.
Loss helps you reach for gain.
Death helps you celebrate life.
War helps you work for peace.
A flood makes you glad you're still standing.
And a tall boy can stop the wind so a candle of hope can burn bright.

Lovely, lovely book.


Mary Witzl said...

I love those last lines.

I've been reading books that date back to the 90s. Why not, if they're good? And if few people have heard of them, it's even more important to spread the word. This book sounds great. I feel so old, though: the terms 'Vietnam War veteran' and 'grandpa' just don't seem compatible...

Marcia said...

Mary -- Books are supposed to be different than pop music, right? Not here today, gone tomorrow? Although, given the realities of marketing, maybe that's changing. The whole book is filled with wonderful little gems like the ending, and I really liked it. As for Vietnam War and Grandpa -- I know. Soon the day will come when I read a book that has a grandparent in it who's younger than I am. Kind of like that first experience when you go to a doctor younger than you, hear a sermon by a pastor younger than you, and then the President's younger than you . . .