Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Cross-posted at The Well-Read Child

With this year’s Newbery winner being announced on Monday, I figured I’d better get around to reading last year’s winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky is set in Hard Pan, California, a destitute town where nearly everyone receives “Government Surplus commodities.” Even though the town may be lacking in money, it’s not lacking in interesting and eclectic people. First you have Short Sammy, a recovering alcoholic whose house is made of a water tank. Then there’s quiet Lincoln, Lucky’s friend who is fascinated with tying knots. His mother a librarian wants him to be president, and his father, a much older man spends his day driving around in a dune buggy looking for historic pieces of barbed wire he can sell on EBay. And then there’s Lucky Trimble a 10 year old girl whose mother was electrocuted by down power lines when she was eight. Her father, whom Lucky doesn’t even know wasn’t about to become a father when her mother died, so he somehow managed to get his first wife, Brigitte, to come all the way from France to be Lucky’s guardian. Lucky is consumed with the fear that Brigitte will go back to France and leave her. The book centers around this as we get a glimpse into Lucky’s everyday life and the people of Hard Pan.

When I first read this book, I thought, “THIS won the Newbery Medal?” I thought it was a good story, but I didn’t think it one of the best young adult books I’d ever read and certainly not as good as Hattie Big Sky, which was named a Newbery Honor Book last year.

But as I kept thinking about the story and the characters, it grew on me. Patron does an exceptional job with characterization in the book. Lucky is exceptionally smart and creative. She loves to make up stories about the “Olden Days” where her companions, HMS Beagle (her real-life dog who is “not a ship or a beagle”) and Chesterfield, a mule, have all kinds of adventures. For a child of ten, she has had to deal with things that no adult would want to go through—the death of her mother and the abandonment of her father. These experiences give her a sense of maturity that many 10-year-olds don’t have, but Patron reminds us over and over again that she is a child. She carries around a “survival backpack” wherever she goes. Its contents include a survival blanket, half a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of Gatorade, tins for collecting her bug specimens, and much more. She puts mineral oil on her eyebrows so they’ll glisten (Brigitte won’t let her wear real makeup), and she has a bit of a crush on Lincoln. She eavesdrops on AA meetings and other “anonymous meetings,” and it’s apparent that she doesn’t understand what they’re really all about as she tries to search for her own “Higher Power.” These types of things made me chuckle and then I’d come across a passage like this that would tug at my heart: “Sometimes Lucky wanted to change everything, all the bad things that had happened, and sometimes she wanted everything to stay the same forever,” (p. 8).

Patron gives us a glimpse into what it feels like to live in constant fear that you’re going to be abandoned and not know where you’re going end up—the fear that is all too real for most foster children. Even little Miles, who lives with his grandmother, doesn’t know where his mother is and carries around a worn copy of “Are You My Mother?” I couldn’t help feeling empathy for him as Lucky refused to read it to him—again.

Even with all of the heart wrenching moments, Patron does a fine job of balancing them with humor and an engaging storyline. The book is not too heavy or depressing and has an uplifting ending.

I was surprised (well not really) to hear all of the hubbub about Patron’s use of the word “scrotum” on the very first page of the book—she’s retelling Short Sammy’s story of his lowest point with his alcoholism where his dog gets bit on the scrotum by a snake. There is nothing sexual or perverse, and in fact, Lucky is not even sure what a scrotum is—another example that she is just a child. My two cents—children have heard much far worse, and it is the proper name of a sexual organ. Patron could have used a number of alternative terms. It is not and should not be a focal point of the book, and the fact that it has been banned is completely ridiculous. But don’t get me started on what I think about censorship…even I am making this is the focal point of my review.

The Higher Power of Lucky is a good book with lovable characters, great and believable dialogue, and both poignant and funny moments. I personally would have picked Hattie Big Sky to win, but I’m not on the committee, so what can I do?

Correction: My sources were incorrect...The Higher Power of Lucky hasn't been banned although there was a lot of chatter about it being challenged or banned. Even so, I STILL think it's ridiculous that it would even be considered. Thanks to Susan at Wizards Wireless for setting me straight and pointing me to this article.

1 comment:

Tricia said...

i completely agree. i read this and though, "What?!"

i guess it's the same feeling i had when Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture. Sure it was good, but not THAT good.