Hoping Against Hope

Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt.  Clarion, 2011, 368 page.  Age/interest level: 12-up

Gary Schmidt’s Newbery-honor-winning The Wednesday Wars featured 13-year-old Holling Hoodhood, a child of the mid-1960s and the only Presbyterian in a private school filled with Catholics and Jews.  Holling sits out Wednesday afternoons, when all the other kids are at catechism or Hebrew school, alone in a classroom with Ms. Baker, who hates his guts.  Or so he thinks—actually she’s just a really good teacher, who challenges and inspires him by making him read a different Shakespeare play every month.

Doug Sweiteck, Holling’s after-school buddy and fellow Yankees fan, gets to be the hero of his own book, Okay for Now.  Doug has a lot of strikes against him, including his mean brother and his boorish, insensitive Dad.  As the story begins, the family is moving from Long Island, where Doug could at least catch a Yankees game now and then, to Marysville—make that “stupid Marysville”—where nothing happens.  Strike three–Terrific.  Doug’s attitude sinks lower and lower and could ultimately doom him to a withered existence like his father’s.  But then something grabs his imagination: full-size, full-color plates from an early edition of Audubon’s Birds of North America displayed in the public library.  With the plates comes his first adult friend in Marysville, Mr. Brooks the librarian, who offers to teach him to draw.  Once Doug is hooked, the town reels him in with all kinds of lures: books, drama, rowdy but loveable little kids, a girl who turns out to be really special, a first kiss.  With all this outward stimulation Doug blossoms, finding within himself resources of kindness and good sense and ingenuity that give back something of what he’s received.

But every time life starts looking up for him something always happens to drag him down, and the something usually has to do with his family, especially his dad.  The only code of ethics Dad seems to have is “Don’t be a chump.  Everybody’s out to get you.”  He displays no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but his badness seems mostly of a routine, self-centered kind—until Doug is forced to reveal something the man did to him when he was twelve.  It has nothing to do with sex (that’s what we first think of, isn’t it?) but it’s deeply disturbing all the same. It actually made me furious: What kind of father would do that?  And laugh about it?

In spite of Dad, and “my brother” who isn’t named until he does something decent, and the “so-called gym teacher” likewise, there’s a lot of good in this story–but perhaps too much story.  As in The Wednesday Wars, Schmidt crams so much in that when the wrap-up starts, plot threads tie up with unseemly haste and the sun shines a little too relentlessly.  Except for that thing that happens at the very end.

Gary Schmidt, the last I heard, teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, a center of Reformed Christianity.  He may be a Reformed Christian himself (see his beautiful retelling of Pilgrims Progress).  The redeeming power of art (e.g., Shakespeare, Audubon) is a recurring theme in his work, and he mines the inherent decency in people as if to show the image of God under the surface ugliness caused by evil in the world.  But the Bible tells us that ugliness is not only on the surface; it’s at the heart.  As one disagreeable adult after another begins to show their noble side in Okay for Now, I’m thinking, If Dad comes around, I’m not believing this.  Dad comes around.  I’m not believing.

It’s not that a person can be too rotten for God to reach.  Even Dad can be redeemed, but minus a Damascus-road experience, the process is going to be slow and painful.  Doug’s father evidently had his own rough childhood, which stunted his vision and narrowed his affections, but that’s all the more reason why change will be slow, and may have to be incited by something more dramatic than the incident portrayed.  The story is all about hope–”the thing with feathers,” according to Emily Dickinson, capturing as she does so well the fluttering but persistent character of human optimism.  But hope in what?  Hints of a transcendent presence (i.e., God) appear at the very end; up to then it’s cold Cokes, baseball, black-backed gulls and snowy herons, curmudgeony playwrights, large noisy families, classic novels, art, and a loving (if frustratingly passive) mom.  All these are worth celebrating, and I appreciate Schmidt’s celebration of the goodness of life.  He’s just not so convincing about the badness.

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5 (out of 5)
  • Literary value: 4

 

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8 Responses to Hoping Against Hope

  1. Anna July 24, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Someone suggested to me that those “improbable” parts that don’t seem very real are just trying to show what that middle school age is like, where everything is (or seems to be) over-the-top, like the rats chasing Holling over the fence in the Wednesday Wars. I have to admit that some of those parts didn’t bother me at all– I had no trouble just taking them with the rest of the story.

  2. Anna July 24, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Someone suggested to me that those “improbable” parts that don’t seem very real are just trying to show what that middle school age is like, where everything is (or seems to be) over-the-top, like the rats chasing Holling over the fence in the Wednesday Wars. I have to admit that some of those parts didn’t bother me at all– I had no trouble just taking them with the rest of the story.

  3. Janie July 24, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    I understand about unreliable narrator aspect, Betsy, and that that’s the reason Doug doesn’t name certain characters. They just seem to turn around too quickly, especially “my brother” Christopher. And other parts he could have left out, such as the Broadway business, which seemed so improbable as to be fairy-tailish. That’s not to say it’s a bad book at all, but my credulity was stretched a little too far. Gary Schmidt has a science fiction book coming out next–I’m eager to see what that’s like.

  4. Janie July 24, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    I understand about unreliable narrator aspect, Betsy, and that that’s the reason Doug doesn’t name certain characters. They just seem to turn around too quickly, especially “my brother” Christopher. And other parts he could have left out, such as the Broadway business, which seemed so improbable as to be fairy-tailish. That’s not to say it’s a bad book at all, but my credulity was stretched a little too far. Gary Schmidt has a science fiction book coming out next–I’m eager to see what that’s like.

  5. Betsy July 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    I, too, liked The Wednesday Wars better. I also really liked Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. But I think I liked Okay for Now better than you did, Janie! I think part of the key to this book is recognizing that you have an unreliable narrator. It’s not first person, but it is a VERY limited 3rd person–hence the not knowing names for some folks until Doug sort of wakes up and realizes that the person IS a person. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he ripped off his shirt in the gym class. I thought things got wrapped up a bit too nicely/quickly, but if we’re only seeing things through Doug’s eyes–then perhaps his dad’s turnaround was partly real and partly based on Doug’s wishes: a wish fulfillment, if you will. I guess this makes it only a semi-hopeful book, but the title says it best: at the end, it’s “okay for now.” We know that things are not all hunky dory, but they DO seem okay for now.

  6. Betsy July 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    I, too, liked The Wednesday Wars better. I also really liked Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. But I think I liked Okay for Now better than you did, Janie! I think part of the key to this book is recognizing that you have an unreliable narrator. It’s not first person, but it is a VERY limited 3rd person–hence the not knowing names for some folks until Doug sort of wakes up and realizes that the person IS a person. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he ripped off his shirt in the gym class. I thought things got wrapped up a bit too nicely/quickly, but if we’re only seeing things through Doug’s eyes–then perhaps his dad’s turnaround was partly real and partly based on Doug’s wishes: a wish fulfillment, if you will. I guess this makes it only a semi-hopeful book, but the title says it best: at the end, it’s “okay for now.” We know that things are not all hunky dory, but they DO seem okay for now.

  7. Anna July 23, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    I read The Wednesday Wars and really enjoyed it. This book, not so much. Certain parts really disturbed and frustrated me.

  8. Anna July 23, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    I read The Wednesday Wars and really enjoyed it. This book, not so much. Certain parts really disturbed and frustrated me.

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