Fuse #8

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Another Review of the Day: Jumping the Scratch

When you think of books in which mysteries take place, your mind instantly falls back onto Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, or maybe one of those charming Hardy Boy types. The full-range of mysteries in children's literature, by and large, is not particularly impressive. And the exception to this may lie in a single author of children's books; one Sarah Weeks. Beginning with her debut novel and impressive beginning, "So B It" and continuing with, "Jumping the Scratch", Weeks gives kids mysteries that go beyond secrets in old clocks or messages in lemon juice. Her mysteries are the day to day unexplained occurrences that make life so doggone interesting. In "So B It", a girl unravels the story behind her mother's past. In "Jumping the Scratch", however, the person holding the key to the mystery is the narrator himself. And he's not going to give up his secrets without a fight.

Jamie is miserable with a capital M. When he lived in Battle Creek, everything was "normal as cornflakes". He went to school with lots of friends. He adopted a stray cat who liked him and only him. Things were great! Then everything went wrong. His cat got run over in the street. Then his dad ran away with a cashier. Then his favorite aunt was involved in a freak accident at the cherry factory where she worked. And NOW he and his mom have gone to live with Aunt Sapphy up in Traverse City in a trailer park far from his friends and school. Oh. And there was one more bad thing that happened to Jaime, but he doesn't like to talk about it. All the reader knows for certain is that it involves butterscotch in some way and a button pressed firmly into a cheek. Now Jamie is going to try to erase the memory of that occurrence entirely from his brain, which at the same time trying to cure his Aunt Sapphy's own short-term memory loss. To do it, he'll have to befriend oddball Audrey, a girl who wears men's plastic glasses frames, and attempt to excise everything bad that he doesn't want to recall from his brain. Either that, or tell someone what happened.

Any children's book with even an oblique reference to child abuse is going to have to handle their material with infinite care. For example, Lois Lowry's recent, "Gossamer", is a lovely little title, but many people have had serious issues with how it deals with a boy's abusive situation. In the case of "Jumping the Scratch", adult readers instantly understand what it is that Jaime is trying to forget (though perhaps not the details). Children, on the other hand, won't know until Jaime finally flashes back to the horrible moment in question and they see first hand the incident. What adult readers will not instantly understand are some of Jaime's quirks. They won't immediately comprehend why he collects empty cherry cans or walks through snake-infested grass every day after school. Weeks takes infinite care in slowly revealing what her hero has suffered and in describing his elaborate coping mechanisms. At the same time, you feels he's a real kid. This is the kid that impatient adults (his teacher being the best example) have no time to understand and care for.

I was a little reluctant to believe some of Weeks' points, however. That after suffering at the hands of an adult male, Jaime would trust an adult male (albeit an author) so soon seemed a bit of a stretch. Then again, Weeks doesn't make Jaime out to be the kind of guy who instantly trusts anyone. I was reminded of a similar children's book, Jane Gardam's, "Long Way From Verona" (right down to the overly enthusiastic teacher) in which a kid's life is changed by an adult author who visits her class. It's an interesting trope. More problematic is the miracle deus ex machina that allows Sapphy to retain her memory at the end of the book. I'm no doctor but the sheer convenience of it all may ring a little false, even to young 'uns ears.

When an author writes a book and it's a hit, people immediately sniff around that author's second with the sole hope of determining whether or not that book is better or worse than it predecessor. They're hoping it'll be worse. With Weeks, it isn't like that. "Jumping the Scratch" is, to my mind, almost as good as "So B It", but an entirely different novel. It has a compelling and easily understood protagonist and has the added benefit of taking place in Traverse City (much like this year's other Traverse City tale for kids, "The One Left Behind" by Willo Davis Roberts). A title well worth checking out from a unique and powerful voice.

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