Read this! It's fantastic!
I almost don't know how to start talking about this book, but I'll try. Newbery buzz there is, and plenty, and if anything else comes out in 2011 that's going to top this book -- well, then it'll be an amazing year.
If you've read The Wednesday Wars, you'll remember the protagonist of that book, Holling Hoodhood. (With a name like that, how could you forget him?) Holling makes a cameo appearance in this book, just as Doug Swieteck, the main character in Okay for Now, does in WW.
Doug's life in 1968-69 is darker than Holling's. After his belligerent, abusive father loses yet another job, his family moves to a small town in New York and rents a house Doug calls The Dump. Doug's mom is loving but powerless, his older brother a bully, and his eldest brother, also a bully, gone to Vietnam. It doesn't take you long to realize that the boys are becoming like the father. Your heart goes out to them, but you feel like the mother: powerless to stop it. And yet, by this book's end, almost all of it stops, and you believe it. This is a book is about redemption.
There are plenty of villains: a librarian, Principal Peattie (who refers to himself in third person so that you'd like to sock him), Dad's best friend, Doug's gym teacher. Yet, almost without exception, you get glimpses into what each of them is going through, and, slowly, Doug comes to an understanding with them. There are also lots of people who aren't villains: a few of the guys at school; a teacher or two; a special girl; Mr. Powell, the other librarian, who teaches Doug to draw; Mr. Ballard, Dad's new boss, who understands everything better than Doug realizes; and more. Almost too many to believe, yet we want to believe it, and love them all.
And there are so many plot threads, involving John James Audobon and his Birds of America book of drawings, the eldest brother's anticipated return from Vietnam, Doug's relationship with the girl Lil, a series of burglaries for which Doug's middle brother is blamed--and, by association, Doug. Other issues include illiteracy, serious illness, baseball, and Broadway. Yes, this is a BIG book (though only 360 pages). And it's a book that flirts with trouble when it draws so heavily on something like Audobon and his bird portraits (oh, and did I mention Jane Eyre, too?) in a book for a MG audience. There may be a couple of points where one could quibble about plausibility, but overall, the ambition, the emotional impact, the voice -- it all works. That alone makes this book great.
It's not an easy book. Parts of it are excruciating, while not beyond a MG audience. In Doug's world, there are decent and not-so-decent people, and we learn that if we look into the not-so-decent, they have reasons for the way they are. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes. Yet they can have redemption if only they will.
Read this. It's fantastic.