by Gary Schmidt
First sentence: “Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.”
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Doug Swieteck had a decent, if a bit rough, life. That is until his dad — because of his friend Ernie Eco — up and moves the family to “stupid” Marysville, New York for a new job. It’s 1968, and Doug’s oldest brother is off in Vietnam, and things are tight at home. It’s not easy settling in to the new town, especially since everyone has Doug and his older brother (not to mention his slacker and somewhat abusive father) pegged for hoodlums.
Things go up and down for Doug — who has one of the more personable voices I’ve read in a long time; he’s speaking directly to the reader, but only once does the whole “dear reader” thing — as he discovers James Audubon’s drawings of birds. I’ve never seen the pictures live, but from the illustrations in the book, I can see why they move Doug so fundamentally. It’s a look at how art and nature can influence our lives for the better, if one takes the time to understand it. In fact, if I had to pick a real theme of the book it would be that: people are more than the sum of their parts, and by taking the time to get to know and understand them, the world can be a better place.
The book could have teetered over into the maudlin, with issues of domestic violence and the war in Vietnam. But it never did. It stayed right on the edge of dark and heartbreaking, infused with hope and light and humor. It’s one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a long time, and definitely one of the most perfect.