Rebecca Stead’s GOODBYE STRANGER is unnerving–unnervingly realistic, that is, of the minds of thirteen-year-olds. That the book disturbed me is a testament to its strength…since that age is not one I really wanted to experience again, but did through Stead’s writing.
Here, the alternating viewpoints that very slowly unpack the experience of seventh grade are far more effective, I think, than in Benjamin’s THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH. Though Bridge, the unnamed “You”, and Sherm’s occassional letters to Nonno Gio, we see how friendships and reputations can morph, distort, and reform so fluidly. Each perspective is limited, adding to that unnerving-ness of a “he-said, she-said” view, and creating narrative tension out of the ache for clarity–which Stead delivers, here and there, with realism.
A colleague wrote me with concerns about the “Moon Hunting” chapter that begins on p.99, because the Patel family practices Karva Chauth, a festival traditionally celebrated by Hindu women in several states of North India, but not Gujarat. (“Patel” is a Gujarati name). However, a quick search online suggests that the festival is gaining some popularity in Gujarat in recent years. Through friends I asked a couple Gujarti-Americans; one’s parents do practice it, but are from South Africa. The other thought it might be a newer thing because of Bollywood and more travel between the states. The question remains whether this would be typical of a New York Gujarti-American family (which, presumably, might have immigrated to the US earlier than the recent shift in Gujarat), but I feel there’s enough to go here to suggest that Stead’s Patels could conceivably observe this festival. All this did make realize how little of Tab and Celeste Patel’s family culture comes through in the rest of the book. That one chapter is really it. In fact, when my colleague brought this issue up to me, I didn’t recall that chapter at all and thought “Who were the Patels in the story”? I think this is interesting, though I don’t think it ultimately detracts.
What I do remember clearly are the many wonderful side characters (Adrienne at the cafe; Mr, P…), diversions (Jamie’s bet; the taste of cinnamon toast with vanilla milkshake…), and epiphanies (not missing the cat ears; the understanding that there IS no “school budget” for Mr. P’s treats…) that make such a strangely rangy narrative coalesce.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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