Thursday, September 16, 2010
It's no secret...
by Barbara O'Connor
Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux (August 2010)
It's no secret that I'm a BIG fan of Barbara O'Connor's work. She's got a signature style that never goes out of style. Her words are playful, lyrical, and a delight to read aloud.
The stories have heart.
The emotions are earned.
The characters are true.
It's also no secret that I'm a tough reader, hard to please, and easily irked when I think a writer is rusting on her laurels.
The only rusting going on in THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER, however, is the cage that Owen and his buddies Travis and Stumpy are constructing for poor, sad Tooley Graham, "the biggest, greenest, slimiest, most beautiful bullfrog in the whole world."
Once again, O'Connor has crafted a tiny corner of the world that's jammed packed with characters and mysteries that she slips into the story as easily as Owen drops poor Tooley into Earlene's soup pot. Besides Owen and his buddies, there's the memorable Viola, a girl who makes it her business to be in Owen's business no matter how much he tries to shed her from his life. I love this kid. She could have easily been a one-note character, but O'Connor surprises us—slowly, but surely—as the story unfolds.
The adults are, thankfully, either in the background or slightly off center stage, just enough to make life complicated for Owen. Interestingly, Owen and his parents have come to live with his grandfather due to financial problems. O'Connor drops this background—so pertinent to today's reality—with a deft hand. The loss of Owen's home is simply there. It gives an emotional underpinning to the story without being the least bit overwrought and hand wringingly nauseating (as others with less skill—me maybe—would be tempted to do).
With great subtlety, Owen's story mirrors that of Tooley Graham—plucked from his home and made to live under the unnatural law of Earlene, his grandfather's aide. The relationship Owen has with his grandfather is magnificently understated. He shares his secrets with his ailing grandfather (who never speaks) at the same gradual pace that it takes him to make sense of the world.
It's incredibility difficult to people a world without confusing the reader or becoming distracting, but O'Connor manages to do this with such ease, the result looks effortless. Every character is part of a delightfully designed puzzle that, when it comes together, is completely satisfying.
Why discuss the characters first, before the plot? Because the characters are what make this story float (heh). The big secret of course (which is illustrated on the book's stunning cover), is the discovery of an unearthly object that's fallen off the train tracks in the middle of the night. It's the sort of discovery of a child's summer fantasy, but O'Connor makes it perfectly possible.
And that, ultimately, is the wonder of this book. It leaves the reader feeling that the world, despite its problems, is filled with possibility. Imagination is not just in the head. It may, in fact, be just beyond those trees, lying off the side of the tracks, waiting to be discovered.
Source: I bought my copy at Orca Books.
For fun, check out Barbara's O'Connor's Trailer: