When Douglas Swieteck’s father loses his job, the family moves to a house they call the “Dump” in Marysville New York in the late 1960’s at a time of pain from the Vietnam War and wonder at the Apollo space missions. Douglas has grown up with an abusive father and two older brothers who pummel him and take anything of value. One brother comes home from the Vietnam War forever changed and the other is accused of robbing a hardware store. At first, the only soft spots are Douglas’s mother—and of course, the humor in everyday life Schmidt brings out so well.
Douglas is full of attitude, but Schmidt knows how to leave an opening for a reader to care about such a kid. He puts him in a miserable situation against overwhelming odds, makes him self aware, and makes him care deeply about baseball and a rare copy of Audubon’s book, Birds of America, he discovers at the library. Douglas decides when he’ll respond to people around him with the hostile sarcasm he’s learned from his older brother and when he’ll set it aside. He responds to the world as the world responds to him. Schmidt also gives Douglas a whole community of interesting characters that reveal him, including Lil Spencer, a young woman who initially locks her bike up when she sees him, but later becomes an important ally.
As the pages of Audubon’s rare book are sold off to meet the financial needs of the struggling town, saving each plate—each bird, becomes a mission and a lifeline for Douglas while life lifts him up and then beats him down. It’s a story about hanging in there when things get as bad as they can possibly get and when they get even worse.
Douglas interprets and relates what’s happening in each of Audubon’s plates of the birds to what’s happening in his own life. Of the first bird he sees in the book after arriving in Marysville he thinks: “He was all alone, and he looked like he was falling out of the sky and into this cold green sea. His wings were back, his tail feathers were back, and his neck was pulled around as if he was trying to turn but couldn’t. His eye was round and bright and afraid, and his beak was open a little bit, probably because he was trying to suck in some air before he crashed into the water. The sky around him was dark, like the air was too heavy to fly in. This bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all.”
Gradually, as Douglas pursues his mission and deals with his struggling family, the obstacles at school, and the way he’s perceived, he builds a life, a community, and emerges whole. The end wraps up, but not too neatly—a satisfying ending that acknowledges that life isn’t perfect but that if a kid has something to hang on to he can be okay. For now.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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