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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son

Tom, Tom, he was a piper’s son,
He learned to play when he was young.
And all the tune that he could play
Was over the hills and far away
(Nursery Rhyme; this text from Wikipedia)

I was on the 2009 Printz Committee. Jellicoe Road was the book that knocked my socks off. On all five reads.

pipersson 199x300 Tom, Tom, the Pipers SonSo the first time I read The Piper’s Son, and I found the Easter egg reference to some of the Jellicoe crew, I burst into tears. It was like finding long lost friends again. I know they are just words on a page, but I believe in them so completely that I would not be surprised to suddenly meet one of these people in real life.

(And then, after I finished Piper’s Son, I read Saving Francesca and Jellicoe AGAIN. Because I missed the characters so much. And also I wanted to see Ben again after having seen him through Justine’s eyes, because Justine’s Ben is not the same as Taylor’s Ben, because it turns out Ben grew up very nicely.)

I do think that what Marchetta has done with those three books and the way the characters overlap and intersect is genius. Each book stands alone (I remembered pretty much nothing of Francesca when I read Piper, and was surprised when I went back to see the younger Tom, who is so different from the Tom now), but the way they fit together adds an element of realism if you’ve read all of them.

But of course, that’s inadmissible evidence for greatness in a court of Printz.

So on to the book at hand, looked at entirely on its own merits and without regard for the larger world it inhabits.

I’m noticing a trend in my top picks for the year. Broken people. Broken damaged people pushing through pain into some sort of hopeful (but potentially still messy and heart-breaking and damaged) future. Briony in Chime fits this; Cam in The Returning (who is even literally broken); even Sarah’s top pick so far (Conor in A Monster Calls) fits the mold. Tom Mackee might not be the most damaged of the year’s pool of broken people, but his damage is in many ways more familiar. Tom is lost and directionless, his family is a mess, and it all goes back to his uncle’s death in a terror bombing. Tom is damaged by something we in the real world get.

The tricky part, of course, is that this is not just Tom’s story.

And while Tom is more-or-less a YA (less, really–he’s 20 or 21, and his friends are either in University or past it), the other main character is Tom’s 42-year-old aunt Georgie, who is not adolescent at all (even if she is accidentally pregnant out of wedlock or even a relationship).

But maybe it doesn’t matter, because maybe this isn’t actually about Tom and his grief, or Tom and the relationship he almost had with Tara Finke, right before his uncle’s death. Maybe this isn’t about Georgie and her broken relationship and her pregnancy and her constant fight against debilitating depression, nor about any of the rest of the Finch-Mackee clan, nor Tom’s wonderful friends who love him and support even though he’s pushed them away for the last two years: “I know you’re sad, Tom. But sometimes you’re so mean that I wonder why any of us bother.”

Maybe what this book is about is family. Blood family and friend family. Lost family and found family–a motif made clear by the minor narrative thread about the remains of Tom’s paternal grandfather, dead in Vietnam and now, 42 years later, maybe about to come home.

And if there is one thing Marchetta really does better than any other writer I can think of, it’s family. Messy, textured, living breathing family, brought gloriously to life until you feel like you know them all.

Ultimately, that’s what makes this something special: the nuances of daily life, the small graces and small anguishes, the people so real they might be just around the corner.

Although Tom and to a slightly lesser degree Georgie stand at the center, the overall effect is often as much ensemble as leads and supporting actors. I suspect some of this has to do with the fact that Marchetta has written about many of the supporting characters already: they have a history and backstory that we only see in pieces here but which lend verisimilitude to every action and thought.

So that’s the exemplary, but it’s not the whole story.

What isn’t done as well here? The world. On the one hand, it feels real. Reading The Piper’s Son, I felt like I had wandered into someone’s life rather than someone’s novel. That’s pretty powerful stuff. But that realism was sometimes at the expense of my understanding of the world–some of the background union stuff that helps shade characters like Tom’s dad or Sam? Yeah, couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I’m not sure if that’s a USian/Autralian thing. I’m a union member, married to a former Dom-like organizer/negotiator, so I thought I had these things down, but I don’t know all that much about Australia. So it might be an actual writing flaw or it might be a failure of translation, so to speak, but it felt confusing, and in a novel where character is so important, impenetrable motivations are problematic indeed.

Also a little clumsy are some of the references to Tom Finch, the one lost in Vietnam (I really want to look at this and Ants in close comparison given that Vietnam/missing grandfather thread that runs through both). I love the way the absence of a loved one (the dead grandfather and uncle; Tom’s absentee dad and far away mother and sister; old friends Tara Finke in East Timor, Will in wherever he is, and Jimmy MIA) shapes everyone, not just Tom, but sometimes it feels a little heavy handed. The grandfather’s body subplot is the least well-meshed of the missing persons stories and so it calls attention to the occasionally less-than-deft touch elsewhere as well.

Less relevant to a conversation about quality but something I’m wondering about is potential appeal: I really like Georgie and I found her story compelling, but she moves the focus even more to adulthood and adult concerns. I think this might be an adult book even more than the other why-was-it-pubbed-YA titles I’ve seen this year (starting with Mal Peet’s Life). And getting back to the writing, I wonder if the dual narration is really effective at conveying the story. Do we need Georgie? And if not, why is she there?

Serious contender? It’s hard to tell. It’s not as smooth as some of the books, but it’s a bit more approachable–no fantasy, no potentially off-putting voice, great characters, and even the ages make sense (see Ants) since the youth of Tom’s grandparents and parents is in fact part of their story. And Marchetta has taken the gold once before, which probably guarantees a close look from the committee for this one. But ultimately, I’m betting this doesn’t make the final five.

Pub details: Candlewick March 2011. Reviewed from ARC (because the final copy was too heavy to carry).

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Doret says:

    I love Marchetta’s work and was surprised that Finnikin Rock didn’t at least honor that year. Though this is now, I think much of Piper’s Son has a quiet beauty that if someone reads it too fast they’ll miss it. That happened to me, the first time I read it I liked it but didn’t love it. The second time in I realized how much wow I missed.

    I recently finished Life. I loved it but for me it was one chapter too long, but I felt the author could’ve shortened one or two of the chapters before the last one. Loved Clem’s insights at the beginning, but by the end I felt it was slowing down the narrative.

    I just checked out A Monster Calls from the library, looking forward to reading it.

    So do you think committee members would be more inclined to support a outstanding YA novel that doesn’t feature broken people because this that would make it stand out.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Doret, I did hear some jokes in 2010 about all the winners featuring crazy people, to one degree or another, but really I think you could take any set of five books and find some common strand if you look, even though each of those books is actually really different and stands apart from the others in dozens of ways. You could say that The Returning, Life: An Exploded Diagram, Everybody Sees the Ants, Strings Attached, and The Piper’s Son are linked by war, for instance. Broken people is a pretty common common strand. Does something different have an advantage by being categorically different? Maybe, but in this case the opposite of broken people is probably happy people, and happy people are perceived as being not very literary (like the comedies and romances they often populate). I see it more as the 2011 publishing zeitgeist, and think that the books are pretty individual (and outstanding in multiple sense of the word) aside from that one thing.

  2. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    I love this book so much, I’m posting my second review (based on the audio) this coming wednesday.
    Union stuff: maybe it was the reread. Maybe it was reading it after reading some other books, including NF, which had union information and the unions in the news, but the second reading (listening) made this much more of an impact when the first time it was just background. Dom, with his faults, is the person who takes cares of others; his union/politics reiterates this, adds to who he is. Even the first time, tho, I didn’t see this as confusing, but as background and I didn’t see it as a distraction.
    Ditto for Tom Finch — on mutliple rereads, this to me strengthens. It’s about the losses in life, in each generation, and how it shapes those left behind, haunting the future, and how that is part of what “our” Tom has to work through.
    Is Georgie needed? Yes, to show us the world outside Tom’s view but also to show that what he is working thru, what happened, his life, is more than “Joe died and now this happened.” It’s entirely possible this family would have broken up even without Joe’s death, and Georgie and her story and what heppened helps create the bigger story.
    Part of what I loved about this book is its coming of age about interdependence and our role in community; when often such books are about independence and leaving family. I think that Tom, Georgie, even the union underscore that and add to the point that Tom is not alone, no matter what he thinks or wants.

  3. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    In other words…Printz worthy? Hell yeah.

  4. Karyn Silverman says:

    Liz, I absolutely agree with you about the importance of the union stuff and how that informs Dom’s character, and how that in turn informs Tom’s anger. Where we differ is in how we think it plays out in the writing. I know enough about union organizing and could follow enough to get the point, but didn’t actually understand any of the details. And since we are looking from a perspective that belongs to either Tom or Georgie, and they do understand it, this is not intentionally confusing for the reader, I think. Hence my seeing it as a flawed element.

    As far as Georgie goes, I get where you are coming from, but I’m still not sure I agree. I don’t disagree, exactly, but I’m certainly not as strong in my conviction that we need to see things through her eyes to make it all work. I think we get it through Tom and there are other eyes we could see through if a second perspective were needed, with stories that also would work: Francesca, for example, who we mostly seeing making music for the absent ones. Where I have doubts is (are? this is a terrible sentence) the places where Georgie’s story is not in parallel to Tom’s. Counterpoint, maybe; they intersect in beautiful ways. But it is it’s own story of another member of the family who is suffering, and I’m not sure we need both stories. Even though I loved them both. But on a second read I felt a little pulled between them.

    This is a damn fine book, but something isn’t gelling as a top five. Or maybe I’m just sad that it’s not Jellicoe come again.

  5. Hey I think Magellan are great. However try hard to look over a review first.

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