Friday, May 29, 2009

Trouble me

I've got a longish commute, and nothing makes the time in the car fly by like listening to an audiobook (and what a great way to get caught up on all those books on my "to read" list!)

I got the impression this was supposed to take place in the late 70's, or possibly early 80's. I'd heard that the story takes place in Maine and deals with Cambodian immigration. Having grown up in Maine around Cambodian refugees myself, that was enough to hook me right there. It's not terribly often that Maine shows up as a locale (One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey, aside) in children's books so I was interested to see what Schmidt would have to say about it, and how the audiobook reader, Jason Culp, would make it sound.
I don't feel that Culp completely got the accent. It turns out the family is from Massachusetts. He sounds like a man trying to do a Boston accent and ALMOST getting it right. But it is very slightly off. He completely and totally got the pronunciation of "Penobscot" wrong, but everything else sounded passable. To anyone not from the area, it probably sounds great. The myriad of New England accents, subtly but noticeably shifting every few square miles are notoriously difficult to nail down.

The story contained a lot of very lyrical, writerly language. Beautiful descriptions of the sea, of grief, of the dog, of the mountain (Katahdin) of so many things.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The protagonist, Henry, from an upper crust New England family, is struggling to come to terms with things after his life falls apart. Franklin, his athletic older brother that he's idolized, is in a horrendous car accident when Cambodian Chay Chouan hits him with his truck. At first, Franklin is in a coma and has lost his arm, but eventually he succumbs to his injuries and passes away. Henry rescues a black dog and together, he and the dog work on healing themselves. As the small town of Blythebury-by-the-Sea erupts in racial tension over the incident, Henry decides to leave town. He plans to hike the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, something his brother always wanted to do, accompanied by his private school classmate, Sanborn. They hitchhike and are picked up by -- of all people, Chay, who is also headed out of town. Henry really struggles with his grief and anger, but as he gradually realizes that Chay has been in love with his sister Louisa, he manages to forgive Chay for the accident. After a cathartic run-in with some racist Vietnam vets, a hike up Katahdin, the steady devotion of Black Dog and a reunion with his concerned parents, Henry is able to feel much more at peace.

In many ways, because of the use of allegory, foreshadowing and other literary devices, as well as the heavily all-male perspective, this story reminded me very much of of many of the classics studied in high school such as A Separate Piece, The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird.

I had the feeling that this would be a "boy and dog" book the moment Black Dog came on the scene, but that didn't seem to completely be the case. The other characters, especially Sanborn, end up surprising us with a lot to contribute as well. Schmidt "shines a light" on any potential problems by having the characters bring everything right out in the open. The kids at school tease Henry for giving his dog the most ridiculously obvious name, "Black Dog" and he defends it. Within a few minutes, the name which sounded so silly seems the most natural and perfect name ever. All the plot points wind up tightly, but Schmidt writes skillfully enough to prevent it from seeming too unbelievable. It's a clockwork kind of book. Everything is neccessary. Black Dog turns out to be (of course) Chay's dog, who is now Henry's dog and an important element in healing the grief that troubles them both.

I loved this book, and I loved hearing it in audio format (despite the slightly imperfect accent) it made my long commute go by in a snap.

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