Wednesday, August 6


by Ingrid Law
Dial / Penguin 2008


It has taken me days to try and sort out what bothers me about this book. I think it's the mixture of pseudo-magical realism and corn-pone storytelling. The narrator won't shut up, isn't very bright (none of the kids in this story are), and is the mouthpiece for the author's ham-fisted "everybody is special in their own way" message.

On their thirteenth birthdays the Beaumont's receive their "savvy," that special something they possess that no one else does. For Mibs, on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the question is what form will her savvy take. Will it be the the quiet kind, like her mother's ability to do everything perfectly, or like her grandmother's ability to capture radio waves in mason jars like lightning bugs? Or will it be like her brother's, one who can harness electricity and another who creates hurricanes whenever he's near a large body of water?

Sadly, Mibs birthday plans are interrupted when the author decides to drop an obstacle in Mibs path: her father is involved in an accident on the highway and is laid up in a hospital to the south. Convinced by the lamest of evidence that her savvy involves "waking" objects previously believed to be permanently inert, Mibs in convinced she can bring her daddy out of his coma. But how to get to the hospital when she's been left behind by her mother?

That's right, stow away in the back of a traveling bible salesman's bus. And while you're at it, why not make it you and two of your sibling. And a couple of preacher's kids. Got it? That's five kids who think it's a good idea to stow away on a stranger's bus. The fact that he's a bible salesman is supposed to make you feel safe about it all.

Once they discover they're headed the wrong direction they prevail upon said salesman to deliver them where they need to go. He agrees that he can take them there eventually, but has his stops to make first.

Yeah, I've got a vehicle full of stowaways and I think I'll just drive around with them for a bit while they sort things out among themselves. No one's going to ask me down the road what the hell I was thinking, driving them around for days without anyone knowing...

Oh, and Mibs gets her savvy. And I have to ask: is this a metaphor for getting your period, or having ritual circumcision, or a bar mitzvah? Anyway, she gets it. Her savvy is being to hear what people are thinking but only through whatever ink happens to be on their skin. Even a temporary tattoo is able to speak to Mibs who figures this out several chapters after the reader has and is falling asleep.

I'm sorry, I can't seem to give a straight summary here.

Here's where you first lose me: The character's name is Mississippi but her younger sibling can't pronounce that and calls her Mibs. Okay. But that's what everyone calls her? She lets teachers and strangers and friends and enemies call her by her family name? No, I don't think so. But that's a quibble.

Next wrong fork in the road: stowing away on a stranger's bus to get someplace. Uh huh. You don't first admit knowing it's wrong, then try to lay a claim that you believe the driver to be safe, all the while exhibiting a failure to understand your own critical facilities. A history of bad judgment in a character shouldn't allow for safety to prevail at its most crucial point. Kids get into trouble all the time thinking they know enough to stay safe, make bad decisions, and trust people they shouldn't as a result. Here we have not one but FIVE kids who all fail to do the right thing, believing there's safety in numbers while they are on a bus headed in the wrong direction with no one knowing where they are.

Yeah, yeah, don't give me that stuff about the news bulletin on the TV throughout and the police looking for them. That's all after the fact (and worse, it is there to tie up a loose end concerning he paternity of one of the kids!). The fact is dumb kids + dumb decisions should not = positive results. We don't live in that world, and even if we lived in a world full of people with secret "savvies" it would strain credulity to believe that these are the actions of smart, savvy people.

Lastly (for now), if you want a main character to spout the curious homilies and expressions of a Southern Carl Sandburg at least make them sound like they're coming from a kid and not an old lady. Kids will incorporate the language they learn and know, but not with such abundance and variety as they do here. Yes I get that it supposed to take on the feel of a tall tale, all that language-of-the-people stuff, but it feels as wrong as shoulder pads on a t-shirt; it's a statement, but is that really the statement you want to make?

In a bit of backward glancing at all the people who loved this book, and all of those that didn't, I'm starting to get a sense that this book could be a new litmus test for determining whose judgment I can trust. I think there are a lot of people out there, many of them librarians, who would consider this prime Newbery material. Sadly. Probably the same ones who agreed with the Newbery committee over The Higher Power of Lucky. Savvy nabbed a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor recently. Let's hope it stops there.


I'm not going to burn in a place I don't believe in, but I'm sure my ass is going to get bit one day for this.


Charlotte said...

I wasn't able to finish it. I didn't give a darn what her wretched savvy was, nor did I give a hoot about any of the characters....

Anonymous said...

No disrespect intended, but I could not disagree with you more. As an elementary librarian, I read hundreds of books every year, and this one is one of my very favorites of 2008. The characters are memorable, the storyline is unique, and Law's writing is vibrant and lyrical. (Oh--and I'm not one of those people who thought The Higher Power of Lucky was prize-worthy. It was just...okay.)

I have kids who go by their family nicknames at school, so that didn't strike me as odd at all. As for the decision to climb onto the back of a bus and stow away, yes, it was stupid, but kids make stupid decisions every single day. (I am witness to many of those stupid choices on a regular basis. "Wow! He did WHAT?!) And when children are under stress, they really don't think through the consequences.

Anyway, I am huge fan of this book, so I felt the need to "defend" it a little bit. Amazing how people can read the same book and come away with such completely different feelings, isn't it? But I would ask you not to determine whether or not you "can trust someone's judgment" by their opinion of this one title. I disagree about books with some pretty intelligent, terrific teachers sometimes, but I still trust their judgment.

Just a thought....