About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

#24, sort of - Crazy Lady!

'K then, my 24th book of the year was Crazy Lady!, by Jane Leslie Conly. Some might call this cheating on two counts (one, I listened to rather than read it; two, it's a children's book), but this is a blog, dang it ... not a grad-level literary seminar. And this book was really a wonderful find, a forgotten children's book with realistic characters, an engaging plot, and an imperfect but fitting ending.

The narrator and main character is Vernon Dibbs, a boy of about 12 growing up in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood in the early 1980s. Three years after his mother's sudden death, Vernon is floundering. His father is kind but remote, and must work long hours to support 5 kids with only a fourth-grade education, so much of the day-to-day work of running the household falls to his 17 year old sister Steph; big brother Tony is smart, but too caught up in his own studies and aspirations to be much help to his family. This leaves Vern mostly on his own, failing in school, hanging out with the neighborhood guys, and getting into minor-level mischief on the order of swiping candy bars from Woolworth's and heckling Maxine, the neighborhood crazy lady, whenever they catch her out with her mentally disabled teenaged son, Ronald.

Things begin to change when he meets Maxine at the corner store, and she speaks kindly of his late mother. Caught off-guard, he blurts out the truth about his poor grades, and she introduces him to Miss Annie, a retired teacher who agrees to tutor him in English. In lieu of money, she asks Vern to pay her by working odd jobs, usually to help Maxine and Vernon. A surprising friendship develops, and Vern learns that Maxine's bouts of public "craziness" are, in fact, drunkenness -- she's an alcoholic. After meeting Ronald's teacher, Vern comes up with the idea of organizing a carnival to raise money for sneakers, so Ronald can compete in the Special Olympics. In the process, Vern, Ronald, and the entire neighborhood are transformed.

That's the climax rather than the end of the story, and I won't give the rest away -- but our whole family really enjoyed the story. The characters are compelling and mostly likeable, but very much human, with warts and all. The setting, at least for a children's book, is a realistic, working-class urban neighborhood, racially mixed, and with some rough and run-down parts. Even the plot has more to it than I'd initially expected; primarily, it's the story of Vern getting to know Maxine and Ronald as individuals, but it's also about the long, slow process Vern's family goes through to rebuild their lives after his mother's death, and about an ordinary neighborhood coming together to support and take care of its own. It's an excellent car book -- complicated enough to hold the whole family's interest, and interesting to think and talk about afterwards, to boot. (If you're so inclined, several others in the same category we've enjoyed over the years are A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Peck; Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry; Poppy and its sequels/ prequel, by Avi; and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell.) It's also worth a read by older elementary, intermediate readers even if you're not in the car.

Coming soon, probably tomorrow: #25, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Finished this one today and really loved it -- it won the Pulitzer for a reason -- but that 5-hour car trip was a long one, and I'm 'bout ready for bed now.

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