Half my head is quiet.
I was born this way.
Most people don’t notice right away, but once they do, I see their faces; I watch how they’ll move around toward that side–the one with the missing part–so they can see what’s wrong me with.
So, here. Look at me.
Stick isn’t his real name. It’s Stark McClellan but everyone calls him stick. He’s thirteen-years-old, six feet tall and, well, a stick. His older brother, Bosten, who is in the eleventh grade, has always looked out for Stick, whether it is protecting Stick from school bullies or their abusive parents. The brothers have formed a loving bond so solid nothing can come between them.
There are many exceptional aspects to Smith’s storytelling. Stick is our first person narrator and the verity of his voice is immediately apparent and consistent.
Things get into my head and they bounce around and around until they find a way out.
My mother never talk about my ear. She hardly ever talks to me at all.
I believe she is sad, horrified. I think she blames herself.
Mostly, I think she wishes I was never born (p 7).
The prose echo Stick’s thoughts just as his thoughts echo and bounce around in his mind, trapped by his missing part. Stick believes himself ugly – a thought reiterated just often enough that we know it is never far from his thoughts. It is a thought that strips him of whatever fragile confidence he is able to build before the negative external forces in his life tear him down. It colors ever new interaction, magnifying his already meek nature. This is depicted as well as and perhaps even better than other excellent books dealing with physical abnormalities (like North of Beautiful and SLOB).
While much of the parental abuse is driven by their father, see how Smith dresses their mother.
Her dress was blue, and had orange and red parrots and bright green bamboo on it.
I wondered if parrots really lived in bamboo forests, or if maybe, the artist in charge of Mom’s dress just figured parrots plus bamboo equals fun.
Stick’s mother is not motherly but more like an imitation of their father. She rarely touches her sons. This leaves Stick bereft and confused about non-violent physicality. And the horrors of their father’s abuses… it was like being punched in the gut by an invisible fist.
Other themes Smith explores are redemption, homosexuality, and bullying (including the obligatory torture that is gym class).
To me, it felt like we were all in some kind of cruel Nazi science experiment, but we didn’t question it. I realize that it’s hard to question rules when you’re standing in alphabetical order, waiting in line, freezing and scared, wearing nothing but a jockstrap (p 88).
My favorite scene – and I hope this doesn’t spoil it for anyone – comes on page 167 when Stick’s mind finally catches on to what his body and heart have been trying to tell him. It’s just what a kiss scene should be. When Stick says, “I kissed her again and again, holding her perfect neck in my cupped palm…” it’s not sappy because we’ve seen him compare his (ugly) self to Emily. The humor that follows relieves the tension, so while everything has changed, everything is still the same.
The redemption theme surrounds the legend of St. Fillian, who is the patron saint of the mentally ill and credited with powers to heal the sick. References to the Saint pop up several times: McClellan means ‘son of the servant of Saint Fillian’ (p 90) and the room the boys are locked in is called St. Fillan’s room (p 97). Stick dreams of bringing light to the cold and merciless room (p 156).
The rules Stick and his brother must follow (p 52, 167) and the games the children play reminded me of Nancy Werlin’s excellent book The Rules of Survival. The rules are chilling and suppressive, especially in light of Mr. McClellan’s behaviour, the game rigged.
It was like a game, but it wasn’t fun and there was no chance of winning (p 40).
It also appears this story takes place several years in the past, though I can’t say for sure when. But the decor and the parrot dress and the mention of records… well, I’m a spring chicken so I can’t place the exact time, but I suspect it is pre-1990!
So, to conclude. One of the best books I’ve read all year and a definite addition to my Mock Printz 2012 list! I’ll be purchasing a copy in October. I reviewed this from a free edition provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
Advance reader edition via NetGalley | October 11, 2011 | Feiwel and Friends | 304 pages | Ages 15 and up | ISBN 978-0-312-61341-9 | $17.99