Fuse #8

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Review of the Day: Palmers Gate

In this year alone I've read more than my fair share of A New Girl Comes To School children’s books. For some reason, multiple authors all decided that THIS was going to be the year for that particular tale, with varying results. Tony Abbott did it with his surprisingly fresh, “Firegirl”. Dandi Mackall with “Larger-Than-Life Lara”. And now first-time children’s book author Barry Varela has done it with “Palmers Gate”. Unlike the first two titles, “Palmers Gate” isn’t about a girl who’s covered in horrible burns or is really really fat. Instead, it tackles the issue of abuse and the powerlessness of children. Unfortunately, while Varela has a clear grasp of what makes good writing he needs to work a little on plot development and what his books are trying to say. If “Palmers Gate” has a message or a point, it may be lost on the young ‘uns who read it. It was on me.

Eleven-year-old Robby’s life in Palmers Gate was simple before Colleen Lardner showed up. He lived with his mom in a small home and he had plenty of guy friends to hang out with. Then, one day, the Lardners moved in behind his house. Colleen arrives one day in his class and right off the bat she’s really odd. Her clothes are out of date and she never talks to anybody or anything. To be honest, Robby never pays much attention to the girl, until the day she passes a note in class saying that she’ll strip for all the boys after school. Robby talks her out of it... sort of, and the two strike up a tentative friendship. But when the Robby begins to discover what really is happening in the house behind his own he’ll take some violent action to prevent it from happening again.

Varela has some descriptions in this book that struck me as especially fine. “As he put his hand on the shed’s door, he noticed Colleen inside, sitting on an upturned galvanized bucket in the dark. The silver crescent lip of the bucket glinted”. The book is a bit slow sometimes. This isn’t necessarily a problem, mind you. In fact, it works to the plot’s advantage when, in the midst of this quiet little narrative, you happen to stumble across a note in class that says, “I will strip”. If you don’t know that it’s coming, it’s a shocker. Just the same, you’d expect the book to kind of pick up after that point, and for a while it does. The reader is half-hoping that Robby will talk Colleen out of the stripping, but once he does the tale slows back down again. Adult readers will guess that Colleen is being sexually abused at home, but the book is hardly so explicit. It isn’t until the climax near the end that anything else really seems to occur.

There was also a problem with names. None of the boys in the book have particularly memorable first names and there seem to be a lot of them milling about. This made it difficult to tell them about. A couple times I had a hard time even remembering that our heroes name was Robby and not Randall or Mark or Kevin or Jerry. The personalities of each character are defined, yes, but after the first introductions you’d better know who is who or you’re going to find yourself up a creek without a paddle.

Varela covers some difficult topics in this book, making its readership difficult to establish. On the one hand it’s a relatively short book with only 101 pages. On the other hand, it’s dealing with rape, incest, stripping, and games with titles like, “smear-the-queer” that don’t offer much insight or background. This makes it hard to figure out who to hand the book to. Do you give it to a high schooler who might have the maturity to understand the “queer” reference or do you give it to a kid since it’s about an eleven-year-old and seemingly designed for their grade level?

Really, it was the ending that had me scratching my head the most. Robby is riddled with hatred and anger in this book when he merely suspects that something is wrong at Colleen’s house. But how angry does a kid get when he only THINKS something’s wrong? Okay, SPOILER ALERT here people. You don’t want to know how the book ends? Stop reading this review right now, cause I’m gonna give you the ending. Ready? Okay. So Bobby gets so angry when he hears unpleasant noises coming from Colleen’s home at the end that he sets the house on fire and gets sent to military school. Years later he forgets the whole thing. The end. Why doesn’t he go to an adult if, oh I dunno, he sees Colleen’s mom drunk in his backyard? Lord knows. There may be some feeling that the adult and child worlds are always kept apart, but that’s a pretty flimsy excuse when your friend’s ma is unconscious under your rabbit hutch. Robby wants to stop Colleen from getting hurt... so he sets the place on fire? What if she burned to death? What is the author trying to say here? That kids can never make a difference unless they do something incredibly violent? That's uplifting. All we get in a way of an explanation is, “How could he explain why he’d burned down the Lardners’ house when he himself didn’t really know?”.. Varela tries to tie in Robby’s love of Godzilla here as well, but it just doesn’t gel properly.

This year I’m going to make a contest out of The Dullest Sepia Toned Photographed Covers of the year. In this fight, “Palmers Gate” is going to face heavy competition from Audrey Shafer’s, “The Mailbox”, to say nothing of Elizabeth Winthrop’s “Counting On Grace”. Roaring Book Press didn’t do this book any favors with its street sign laden view of, oh joy, an empty street. I mean, there are good things about this book. Show a half-buried army man. Show the woods near Bakers Pond where Colleen said she’d strip. Show a can of gasoline, for crying out loud, but do NOT show me an empty street that makes the book look like it would take place in 1952 rather than the seventies. Sheesh, people!

Mr. Barry Varela is going to produce some top-notch children’s literature at some point in his life. I give Roaring Brook Press kudos for discovering him at all. However, this debut novel needed a lot of work. To be blunt, it's not very exciting, it doesn’t know what it’s trying to say, and the ending is particularly dissatisfying. I look forward to Varela’s work in the future. I do not, however, recommend that anyone seek out what he’s done thus far.

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