The Plot: Doug Swieteck and family have just moved to upstate New York. His abusive, drunk of a father mouthed off to his boss and got fired. The family packs up what it can and moved into a house Doug calls “the Dump” while his father gets a job with less pay. Doug’s attitude towards his new town? “Stupid Marysville.” “I hate this town. I hate that we had to come here.” He doesn’t just have to fight his own initial bad attitude; it seems his family (at least, the men in the family — his father and older brother) — are quickly seen as thugs by the towns people, and Doug is a thug by association. Over the course of Doug’s eighth grade year, he gradually overcomes both his own bias and that of the locals.
The Good: The voice! Doug’s voice! I adored it, was swept away by it, not just in how Schmidt captures a thirteen year old with a chip on his shoulder trying not to be “that person” who strikes out in anger, but also how Doug reveals information. Look at that simple quote, above — “I hate that we had to come here” — and how in those few words we find out so much about Doug. It’s not the town he hates, but the fact that his father lost a job, that they had no options, that it’s a step down, that they “had” to do this. Again and again, Doug reveals information he doesn’t realize he’s revealing. It’s a thing of beauty, actually, to go through the book and find instance after instance of this.
Okay For Now is the story of a year in Doug’s life. On his first day exploring Marysville, Doug visits the library and discovers a book of Audubon’s bird illustrations. He is captivated it; he returns to it; he tries not to admit how he is fascinated by the portraits of birds. Doug’s interest in the illustrations — no, Doug’s falling in love with the Audubon prints — shows that Doug has depths he cannot admit to himself. He sees himself and his family and friends in the birds; he begins to draw, to learn how to look at things, to examine things closely; and realizes the importance of things and people being whole.
I laughed and cried at Doug’s experiences. His fortitude and strength in the face of challenges. His falling in love with Audubon’s bird illustrations. The way that Schmidt used the illustrations and Doug’s interpretations of the artwork throughout the novel. Doug’s dealings with teachers who (except for one) see him as nothing. I was swept away by the language.
From here on, spoilers.
Heavy Medal has discussed Okay for Now in the context of the Newbery criteria. It’s an interesting process, looking at a book in terms of awards. From a flat out, “will kids enjoy this book?,” I say the answer is yes. But for awards, one has to take that list of stellar books and go deeper. The main concerns with Okay For Now are not the voice or the setting, but rather the plot. A few things happen that some people just don’t “buy”; see Heavy Medal for details. I appreciate some of that; but, honestly, I don’t know sports so the use of Joe Pepitone, to me, is fine, a way to show some light and hope in Doug’s otherwise bleak world. Doug himself is so charming that as I was reading I believed everything he told me. It wasn’t until afterwards, thinking about it, that I began asking myself questions like “if Doug’s dad takes his $5 a week delivery boy money, how much did Doug make from the Broadway play and what is Dad doing with that?”
Here is where I have a couple questions of my own about Okay For Now, which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.
Coach Reed. He was a bully and abused his role as teacher. (By the way, part of my love for this book is how Doug uses names and, when he doesn’t like someone, stops using their names. I love when the Coach becomes “so-called gym teacher”.) I didn’t get why he was targeting Doug, other than because Doug’s family is poor so he knows there will be no parent banging on his door about it. Yes, I get that the Coach was in Vietnam, at the My Lai massacre, but I just didn’t see how that ties into trying to get Doug’s fellow students to gang up on Doug. As for Doug keeping the stats, are we supposed to think that Reed is illiterate? One strength of the novel is that Doug’s time in Marysville is spent beginning to see people as who they are and not caricatures; and people seeing him as a person, not a no good thug. Is that the case with Reed? I’d say yes, but while other teachers do things that are open to interpretation (calling on someone in class may or may not be personal), with Reed, Doug provides some very specific instances of Reed’s bullying. Honestly, I can excuse all of Reed’s pre-tattoo behaviour, but I cannot excuse the wrestling incidents. I also don’t get why Reed stopped. I bought the turnaround with the Principal, but not with the Coach.
Was Ernie Eco the thief? If so, did he set up Christopher? And was the father aware of it? For me, the ending was overly cryptic about what had happened. (But, I did read this in ARC so maybe the final copy was clearer.)
Which brings me to a point I have seen addressed elsewhere, the father. He’s a mean drunk, and while there is some possibility that he’s stopped drinking by the end (the description of the father at the end may be alcohol withdrawal) color me unconvinced. Betsy at Fuse #8 points out how the adult reader may view the ending as different from the child reader. I can live with that, in the sense of not seeing it as a flaw of the book but rather a matter of interpretation. Plus, as others point out at Heavy Medal, all we are promised is that things are “okay for now.” This is why I love smart conversations, critical conversations, about books; I don’t see the end as flawed because of the father; rather, I can identify my own issues (drunk abusive men don’t change overnight and I cannot believe that Doug’s father did); and then see whether it’s an issue for the book (he’s not supposed to be shown as “fixed,” rather, “okay for now”.) (Though in the fanfic in my head, Doug’s mother finally throws her husband out in time to prevent her three sons from becoming him and continuing to be hurt by him and opens some type of gardening shop.)