Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

I read the companion novel to Gary D. Schmidt‘s Okay for Now just because I like to read things in order. But once I had read The Wednesday Wars (TWW) I was worried that the expectations that excellent book set up would be too high for this recent release. I was wrong.

I enjoyed Okay for Now a great deal. It is similar to TWW in many ways, and connected through a shared character,  but is different enough to stand on its own and shine.

Here is the Publishers synopsis:

“The Dump” is what Doug Swieteck calls his new home in upstate New York. He lands there in the summer of 1968, when the Apollo space missions are under way, Joe Pepitone is slugging for the New York Yankees, and the Vietnam War is raging. At home he lives with a father who has lost his way and a brother accused of robbery. And Doug’s oldest brother is returning from Vietnam. Who knows what wounds his missions have given him?

But Doug has his own mission, too, and it begins when he first sees the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America at the local library. His mission will lead him to Lil Spicer, who shows him how to drink a really cold Coke, to Mrs. Windermere, who drags him to a theater opening, and to the customers of his Saturday grocery deliveries, who together will open a world as strange to him as the lunar landscape.

Two books in an I am a big Gary D. Schmidt fan.

If TWW was centered on the smart middle class kid OFN focuses on the lower class kid with all the challenges you can imagine (economically, socially, educationally, etc.). The stories are similar in a lot of ways: coming of age in the late 1960s in New York state; a focus on family, school and community; adversity and dark elements but a largely innocent and good-natured story, etc. But the unique angle of the Audubon birds and Doug’s perspective and voice make the story enjoyable and touching in its own way.

As with TWW, what makes OFN stand out from every other coming of age story is the way Schmidt weaves in history and really seems to capture life in this time and place; and the way he allows you to see the world through the eyes of the lead character. He never gets too dark or serious but nevertheless touches on deep emotional and psychological issues all while showing what it means to be part of a family and community.

Some people found the juxtaposition between the humor and the serious issues awkward but it all came together for me. The comic relief was needed and didn’t undermine the more weighty side.

I like the way Doug wrestles with his past and his character. He knows he can be the jerk and copy his Dad and older brother in being mean and mad at the world. But he also can relax and enjoy the fun and even some of the innocence of his age.  It is by recognizing the good and striving towards it that he gains character.  Audubon’s art, and the community around him, help him see this.  His persistence and underlying character break through stereotypes and mistrust and help the adults around him grow up too.

I will admit that Schmidt squeezes a lot into the plot – particularly towards the end – but for me it was part of the world in which Doug lived.  Complex and surprising and even unbelievable at times – but real and wonderful somehow.

I am not sure how the young adults the book is marketed to react to the story but based on reviews and comments it seems these books connect with adults in both literary and emotional ways.  They certainly did for me.

Great stories, great characters, imaginative settings and clear writing make these two books great reads. I highly recommend them.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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