Thursday, February 8

The Higher Power of Lucky

by Susan Patron
illustrations by Matt Phelan
Simon & Schuster 2006

I'm just not feeling this one.

What is it Chekhov famously never said: If there's a scrotum in the first act it had better pay off in the third?

People are falling all over themselves with this book, generating all kinds of comment and opinion and flame wars on blogs, and in that sense perhaps the Newbery committee was right in choosing it. Perhaps. I'm not convinced yet because I'm still working on the honor books.

I'm not going to present a summary here, just some thoughts I had, things that have been gnawing away at me for the last couple of weeks.

My problem with Lucky is that the pieces don't add up for me. Lucky appears to have sprung out of the Mojave fully formed. That she never saw her father growing up, okay, I can understand why she didn't recognize him. But she was old enough to have memories of her mother, old enough to know what she had, yet she makes little to no mention of those memories and those would be the compelling fixtures that would be keeping her from letting go of her mother.

All this Higher Power business is little girl shorthand, but for what? I'm all for letting readers put together the various pieces but we aren't really given the whole puzzle to work with here. I can see Lucky's insecurity in her survival kit, but the catalyst that causes her to run away is her fear that her guardian Beatrice is going to leave her. That ought to dredge up some fears and memories, tap into some of the more repressed anxieties. Has Lucky's attachment to Beatrice supplanted memories of her mother, and if so, why is so quickly to release her mother's ashes before fully understanding Beatrice's desire to formally adopt her?

And that's another thing, that Beatrice. From Lucky's point of view all Beatrice does is complain about the situation she has gotten herself into, with nary an indication of any warmth that isn't token toward Lucky. She misses France, she hates the desert, she wants to see the California that is Los Angeles, a mere 45 minutes away but cannot and hasn't. How does a person so close to the beaches of Southern California not have the ambition to take Lucky on a trip to the beach but can muster an on-line culinary degree and set up a restaurant in a dead-end desert town? And with her ex-husband's (Lucky's dad's) money?

That's when it all fell apart for me. The guy pays for the funeral and hands Lucky the ashes but doesn't introduce himself. Okay. He sends Beatrice child support and helps her to legally adopt Lucky and lends her the money to set up the restaurant... so, what, he'll make sure that his daughter from one marriage and his ex-wife from another are taken care of so long as they remain in the desert far away from him? What kind of a message is that?

Here's the thing, I didn't start out hating the book from the word scrotum, as many others have. A few chapters in I was looking for a Saroyan My Name is Aram sort of thing, a bunch of collected vignettes of a small community hung together with a thread named Lucky. I'd take the quirky characters and situations and in the end I'd get a crazy quilt of an experience that left me feeling as if I'd drifted in and out of Lucky's little world.

Nope. No such luck.

Vignettes gave way to chapters and a story rose off the asphalt like bug-killing heat. As I tried to corral and assemble the fragments I felt like I was sorting through Lucky's bug collection -- haphazard and randomly assorted with missing information and incorrect assumptions. And when it was over, yeah, that scrotum reference hit me as an odd framing device especially when it didn't really add any meaning or texture to the story. If the story had included more odd and colorful (but not obscene) language I might have felt better about what some refer to as mood-setting language.

As for the Newbery, it's probably best to view it much like any horse race, like the Oscars or the Grammys or the Tonys. The test of time is the ultimate award. My only hope: they repackage it with a different cover when it comes out in paperbook to look a little less Lucky's Higher Power isn't the award itself.

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