Review of the Day: Defining Dulcie
This book falls just on the cusp between YA and children's literature. And while I normally eschew YA reviews, this book was well worth considering on its own. Plus it has such a purty cover.
Do you happen to remember the name of your high school janitor? I sure as heck can’t. I must’ve seen them around the place when I was a kid, but somehow my memory has blanked them completely from my mind. How does that happen? How can you so completely wipe a member of your school’s staff from your brain? I mean, obviously my school HAD janitors. I just must’ve gone through those hideous four years with the sense that high school was a naturally clean place and somehow the garbage bins would magically empty themselves. I tell you all of this because janitors have been on my mind a lot lately. This is due in no small part to first-time novelist Paul Acampora’s, “defining dulcie”. A former teenaged janitor at his own high school, Acampora has brought about a teen novel of surprising gentleness. Though it has a couple bumps here and there, on the whole “defining dulcie” comes across as a strong debut.
If your father were to die in the course of his janitorial work at the local high school, you would probably be devastated. But if your mother then immediately packed you up and took you to the other side of the country to get away from the memories... well then you wouldn’t just be devastated. You’d be mad. Dulcie is in this exact situation, and you can BET she’s not happy with it. So when her mother threatens to sell their old red truck (the last remaining object Dulcie associates with her dad), the teenaged girl leaps in the front seat, turns on the ignition, and drives all the way back across the country to her hometown in Connecticut to live with her grandfather. That means going back to her old job of being the janitor at the high school. It also means meeting her replacement, a rather battered girl by the name of Roxanne. Now Dulcie is dealing with what she’s done to her mother and seeing what Roxanne’s mother does to her. Thankfully, this kid's got a pretty good head on her shoulders.
In his Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Mr. Acampora says, “If you want to know the truth, I should send tuition checks to writers like Joan Bauer”, amongst others, “for all the lessons I’ve gleaned from their work”. I wasn’t shocked to see Bauer’s name presented first and foremost in this list. “defining dulcie” has the feel of a Bauer novel, that’s for sure. Teenagers, wise beyond their years, deal with the world in an adult fashion and have to face up to some pretty nasty characters. Of course, there’s a very large difference between Acampora and Bauer. For one thing, I have a difficult time getting through a Bauer book without wanting, at some point, to hurl it against a wall. This is a personal reaction, you understand. Acampora, however, does not have this effect on me. Had this been a Bauer book, Dulcie would have waxed rhapsodic over the joy that is high school janitorial work. Unfortunately, sometimes Acampora would take poor lessons from Bauer too. Hence I found it more than a little annoying if a character who wasn’t even sixteen kept plucking words of wisdom out of thin air. And sometimes I felt that no teenager that I’ve ever met had a personality as cool and collected as Dulcie. She has a nasty tendency to act like a twenty-seven-year-old.
Still, I enjoyed much of what I found. Acampora’s hot on the little funny details. At one point Dulcie’s grandfather Frank is complaining about the pink tombstone he’ll have to be buried under. He complains that years from now people will, “think that we bought our stones at Bed, Bath and Beyond”. Dulcie’s reply is a thoughtful, “Caskets are in the Beyond section”. There’s even a MacBeth reference or two, if you happen to know your Shakespeare. The book will occasionally flash back to when Dulcie was on the road driving from California back to Connecticut. As she traveled America’s wide and winding roads, Dulcie would visit particularly odd roadside attractions. She saw fainting goats and the bones of saints. These sections meld nicely with the rest of the book, giving a little depth and background to the novel.
I wish that Dulcie’s mother could have acknowledged a little more that what she did to her daughter was not the wisest course of action right after her father’s death. There’s some mention of it, but I’m a sucker for seeing justice done. As it is, “defining dulcie” stands at a nice 168 pages and makes for an enjoyable read. It marks a strong debut and is a rather good read.