By Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin imprint)
Ages 14 and up
On shelves April 21, 2008
You know, as a children’s librarian Gary Schmidt gives me no end of (for lack of a better word) trouble. As far as I can tell, he’s probably one of those authors that doesn’t like to begin writing a book by pigeonholing it for a single age group. If I’m right then it would explain why his oeuvre does a funny dance between children’s literature and young adult literature without the author ever fully belonging to one or the other. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy? Children’s historical fiction. The Wednesday Wars? Getting up there, but I think 13 and 14-year-olds would enjoy it. Trouble? Oh, Trouble. As I began reading this book I hoped that it would be for the same age range as The Wednesday Wars and that would be the end of it. Yet as I read on and got wrapped up in the story it became pretty clear that Schmidt has probably produced his most mature work of literature to date. Due to its content, this is the first Gary Schmidt book I have read that I would classify as “teen” through and through. Though it may have a tendency to be a little obvious in its overriding themes, Trouble is still a strong addition to the Gary D. Schmidt literary cannon. Just don’t seek it out in the children’s section of your local library.
Seventh grader Henry Smith is the younger brother of school hero Franklin Smith, and that’s pretty much all he’s ever been known for. Franklin’s the kind of guy who does very well on the school’s sports teams, and he is more than happy to make everyone around him aware of the fact. That is, until the accident. Grievously injured by a car while running, Franklin’s accident is the fault of one Chay Chouan. Chay’s the son Cambodian refugees and his arrest sparks racial tensions between the mostly white town of Blythbury-by-the-Sea and the mostly Cambodian town of Merton. In the meantime Henry is convinced that if he climbs Mt. Katahdin (the mountain he and Franklin were going to mount before the accident) he will be able to unlock something in himself. What he doesn’t count on are the companions who help him along his way, or the way in which he helps them.
Praising Schmidt’s descriptive talents sometimes makes a reviewer sound like a broken record. Particularly when you consider that he always describes things well. A person is described as empty, “as if the soul had left his body, and his body understood that it would never come back.” Or simply saying that a sky has turned “opal lavender.” There’s a joy that comes from reading a writer that seems to get true pleasure out of writing beautiful things. Schmidt is one of those writers.
The book is split into two perspectives. For the most part you’re getting things just over Henry’s shoulder. Then, occasionally, at the end of a chapter will be an italicized section told from Chay’s. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me 62 pages before I even figured out that these parts weren’t also via Henry. I guess in retrospect it’s obvious. Chay appears to be a difficult character to write, though. I mean, he’s perfect. There is almost no moment in this book when Chay doesn’t do the noble self-sacrificing thing when put to the test. If a saint’s car hit your brother, that saint couldn’t have a shinier halo than the one sitting on Chay Chouan’s head. In a way it’s a problem to have someone this good in a book. On the other hand, the moral implications inherent when a good man kills a guy with almost zero redeeming qualities are always interesting. Do you see why I keep saying that this is a teen novel? Henry, on the other hand, remains a rather opaque hero. While we often don’t know how Henry feels, seeing his actions rather than his thought process. This is both the blessing and the curse of getting all your info in the third person.
The supporting cast in this book was maybe one of the strongest Schmidt has ever produced. I couldn’t tell you the name or personality of the best friend in The Wednesday Wars but Henry’s best friend Sanborn may be in the running for “Best Gary D. Schmidt Character in a Supporting Role”. He’s the kind of friend who routinely grinds our hero’s nose into the dirt, but in an infinitely loving way that you can totally get behind. He serves as the voice of reason for the first half the book and the devil’s advocate for the second. Some might see this as a flaw, but I think it’s completely in keeping with his character. Sanborn just likes to get Henry’s goat, even if that means taking the wrong side once in a while. And Schmidt really lets loose when he introduces the character of Black Dog. At one point Henry rescues from the sea a wounded dog of happy disposition and unprecedented destructive capabilities. I’m not much of a dog person myself, and Black Dog’s cheerful/wanton ruination of Henry’s house should probably have made me furious. But Schmidt knows how to make a character twist you around his/her/its little finger and for that I am glad.
I guess that if I have a problem with this novel it concerns the racial tensions in the book. First of all, I think that one of the hardest jobs a writer can undertake is to write racist characters that don’t think of themselves as racist. And Schmidt has an ear for just exactly the right tone of voice when it comes to something like an editorial in a newspaper. “Only those undeserving of the privileges of American citizenship could be responsible.” Pitch perfect. Yet this book plays its hand pretty openly. I would have liked a little more nuance or complexity concerning the whole white vs. Cambodian storyline. You’d have to be pretty dense to miss some of what Schmidt’s saying here about white privilege.
For all that, it’s a Gary Schmidt novel through and through. A bit of a slow start in the first chapter, but then once Henry rescues the dog it’s off and running. With its mature subject matter (there’s a mention of a rape that plays directly into the history of one of the characters), beautiful writing, and unique characters, Trouble may have some difficulty finding the right audience. Yet for the teen that does choose to pick it up, there’s a lot here to ponder. A lovely book if a bit loose here and there.
On shelves April 21st
Notes on the Cover: Does it feel kind of 70s to you? It feels kind of 70s movie posterish to me. That’s not a bad thing, though. It’s just something about the land and the face together. Dunno. I like the setting and the boy is fine. Let us just say that I’ve nothing fer it or agin it.
First Line: “Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.”
Random Sputtering: I don’t put titles on my reviews on this blog, but can I mention that if I did I would have had the perfect name at my fingertips? Think about the word “Trouble”. What does it make you think of? Well, if you’re a nerdy showtune nut like me then the word reminds you of that song in The Music Man where Harold Hill convinces a town that they’ve surely got trouble. My title? The line of the song that says, “Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!” Sweet.
Other Blog Reviews: KidsLit, The Reading Zone, and Richie’s Picks