Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December Book Review Club: GOODBYE STRANGER

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@Barrie Summy

Jingle, jingle. Also, ho. Not feeling the holiday spirit yet, possibly because it's dark and it keeps raining when I want to put the spirit-saving lights on the maple tree out front. And I've about had it with 2016.

Enough whining. If there's a middle-schooler on your gift list, read on and get out the credit card. If, like me, you're a middle-schooler at heart, time to buy yourself a present. 

Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. And Happy Holidays! 

By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2015

Let’s say you want to stay in a character’s head while she subjects her own motives to brutal analysis, meanwhile remaining cagey about who that character actually is. Turns out second-person narration is just the ticket. Who knew?

Rebecca Stead knew, or anyway she figured it out. GOODBYE STRANGER, a brilliant excursion into the minds of (mostly) seventh graders, intersperses brief chapters in which a mysterious character plays hooky for a day, addressing herself in second person as her situation and identity gradually unfold.  Also interspersed are a boy named Sherm’s letters to his grandfather, unmailed because he’s ticked Nonno Gio walked out on Nonna after fifty years of marriage.

These are not gimmicks. They are paint brushes.

They’re also not the book’s chief beauty. Every now and then, an author displays her (or his) unerring memory of the hell that is middle school, when everything changes, ready or not. Stead tapped into those memories in this book, even more so than in WHEN YOU REACH ME, the only other book of hers that I’ve read. (Going to correct that in a hurry.)

Set in Manhattan, GOODBYE STRANGER offers a full pallette of seventh-grade wonders and horrors. Friends change into strangers, strangers unexpectedly become friends, mistakes bring public humiliations, teachers and parents are oblivious except when they surprise you with understanding, support, and moments of beauty.

Our protagonist is Bridget, who has now decided her name is Bridge. She missed third grade while she recovered from horrendous injuries she incurred rollerskating into traffic. Her survival was a miracle, and now she keeps wondering what that nurse meant when she said “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl.”  She freezes up sometimes at crosswalks. This year, she’s decided to wear cat ears on her head—even she can’t explain why.

Meanwhile, one of Bridge’s two best friends has suddenly acquired “a body,” to the extent that she’s now the toast of the eighth grade in-crowd: a treacherous accomplishment, it transpires. The third member of the trio has become “kind of a know-it-all.” Sherm has unaccountably  become yet another best friend—not, not, not a boyfriend, thank you very much. Bridge discovers that she can be quite a looker herself if she spends time on hair and make-up. A sensible kid, she decides she probably won’t bother.  

Some things are stable, keeping Bridge on her feet. She and her brother continue their long-held tradition of quoting lines from the animated movie “Frosty the Snowman.” Bridge’s mother, a cellist with her own rich life, knows just how to calm her daughter down after her recurring nightmare of being bandaged like a mummy, immobilized.

Middle school is complicated, requiring more than one perspective. The wonder of this book is its ensemble cast of characters, each one a brush stroke.  Bridge is our focus, certainly, but her friends and family have their own lives and concerns that illuminate hers. The mysterious You-narrator, who’s clearly older, offers glimpses of what may lie in store for Bridge and friends—high school can be its own kind of hell.

All of this is accomplished smoothly, masterfully, painterly, from the heart as much as the head. No writer could ask for more.

(Dear FCC: I read this book because I was going to a conference at which the author was a speaker. I bought it with my own money. Never met the author, and if I had I would’ve gushed like a fan-girl. Middle school lives on.)