Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Plot Summary: Lucky, age ten, can’t wait another day. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she’ll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won’t be allowed. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has. But she hadn’t planned on a dust storm. Or needing to lug the world’s heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert.

When this book won the Newbery, the big buzz was that it used the word ‘scrotum’ on the first page. There was talk of censoring it, removing it from library shelves, etc, which isn’t really new and I usually ignore such talk. If a book sounds interesting to me, I’m going to read it regardless of whether it’s got a stamp of approval. Anyway, what really intrigued me was a passing comment I’d recently heard...

I can’t remember who, but someone had written an article questioning the choices of recent Newbery winners, and she commented that THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY can hardly be criticized because of the use of one particular word. That piqued my interest. Did she mean there was more to criticize than that one word? I had to read it to find out...

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

The story is okay. Not terrible, but not fantastic. It didn’t really stand out as something special to me.

I will say that the mere use of the word ‘scrotum’ doesn’t bother me in the least, as long as it’s appropriate for the story. All words chosen must be appropriate for the story. Every single one.

In this case, I’m not sure if it is. Lucky has a habit of eavesdropping on Alcohol Anonymous meetings, and she overhears Short Sammy tell a story about how his dog got bit on the scrotum by a snake. Two things didn’t seem right to me here: a guy named “Short Sammy” used the word scrotum instead of the more common slang? Doesn’t ring true to me. Also, the town of Hard Pan, California has 43 people living in it. Next to a desert. In the middle of nowhere. Why does it have half a dozen AA-type programs? Makes it sound like the whole population is digging themselves out of more than one addiction...

There were some other parts to the story that didn’t make much sense to me. The first, and most obvious: Brigitte, the ex-wife of Lucky’s father, and no relation to Lucky at all. Lucky’s father asks Brigitte to essentially raise Lucky for him. I think most ex-wives would tell their ex-husbands where to stick it if they’d been asked to do this. But, not only does Brigitte agree, she moves to a different country to raise a child that’s not her own. I raised my eyebrow at that, but let it go because I’m sure there are super-nice people like that somewhere in the world. I also shrugged off the potential passport/overstay issues.

However, I couldn’t figure out why Lucky *had* to run away. I know why she did – because she thought Brigitte was leaving her to go back to France. So, why didn’t Lucky talk to Brigitte about this? If Brigitte had been gruff or a closed-type person, I could understand it. But Brigitte is incredibly nice, and it’s obvious she’d listen to whatever was bothering Lucky. So why didn’t Lucky talk to her? Given the way the story and characters were written, I can’t figure that one out. And it makes the ending feel contrived, like she needed to run away for the sake of the story, so the author pulled a reason from the air.

This brings me to the biggest issue I had with the story.

Even if there’s a good reason for Lucky to run away and I’m simply missing it, there is no way I’m going to believe the manner in which she ran away. Throughout the story, she consistently has an affinity for science. She has lived in the desert her whole life. And yet, when it’s time to leave, she puts on Brigitte’s silk slip dress before tramping off into the desert? She would know better. Heck, I don’t live near a desert and even I know better than that.

Next, a dust storm kicks up. Her idea of protection? A dish towel wrapped around her head. Again, she’d know better. Especially with a dust storm so severe that school closes.

No matter how I look at it, this book just doesn’t add up. And I’m still scratching my head as to how this book won the Newbery. But since I’m not on the committee, I’m not privy to their decision-making. Therefore, I can only offer my humble opinion.


Marcia said...

Oh Tabitha, I totally, 100%, agree with this. I read the book right after it got the medal. For every single reason you name, this book just doesn't add up. It doesn't make sense. I'm honestly not sure how it got published, let alone won the Newbery.

And I was amazed over the scrotum controversy once I read p. 1. It's controversial for completely the wrong reason: That character, in that setting, would never have used it! I wonder if Patron used it because she thought using the vernacular would be even worse. But how lame is that? It just doesn't work.

Carrie Harris said...

I haven't read this one, but as always, your commentary makes me think. So thanks!

Tami Brown said...

But don't forget- Lucky runs away armed with her trusty parsley slicer!

PJ Hoover said...

I saw this just yesterday on the Newbery shelf at the library and thought, "Oh, I should read that."
I'd forgotten about the scrotum thing until you reminded me, but you're totally right. If it fits then use it.
Still considering. It probably won't make my 2009 list.
Thanks for the review!

Jacqui said...

Ooh, we so rarely disagree. But I gotta put a pro-Lucky vote in. I think the language is so careful, the characters are utterly unique and yet they reflected me, and Lucky's longing is palpable in a way that gripped me.

I actually liked the character bit about "scrotum." It seemed to fit perfectly with the theme of Lucky growing up and not having all the answers.

Anne Spollen said...

I think a ten year old, and the use of the word "scrotum" is a way to stir up a lot of controversy, not to mention publicity. It's not something I would want my ten year old to read (and I have one).

Do the Newberry folks have children? I mean their own, the kind that show up at the dinner table every night and leave socks under the couch. Those kind. I wonder that sometimes.

Merc said...

I've not read it (I very rarely have an interest in most of these awards, I just don't get them a lot of the time :P) but from your description, I have a feeling I'd have Issues with it (and not the language).

Very nice dissection, Tabitha! I greatly enjoyed it. :)


P.S. I also have to wonder about the committees on some of these awards...

Mary Witzl said...

A friend read this last year and said pretty much what you've said -- that the word in itself didn't bother her a bit, but she felt it was both awkward and a little gratuitous. But now I've read Jacqui's comment and I know I've got to read the book for myself. Eeek -- too many books to read!

Unknown said...

Fair criticisms. I did read the whole book and I won't if something really sucks, so I guessed it passed in that respect. I loved the description of setting and the characters were engaging. Probably not Newbery worthy, but then again, I wasn't overly impressed with the honor books in 07 either. Somebody has to win.

Unknown said...



Bish Denham said...

It's on my to read list...and now I'm intriqued. And, I do wonder about some Newbery choises. Makes one wonder who knows who...

Tabitha said...

Chicago has been buried under snow, then frozen solid with temperatures below zero...*shiver* My kids have been home for most of the week because of it, so again I apologize for not being around. If it hadn't been for the fabulous blog scheduler, there wouldn't have been a thursday post!

Marcia - I completely agree about the scrotum controversy (imagine that). :) There is nothing wrong with the word itself. It's anatomically correct, so what's the big deal? Kids can handle that. And I wonder the same about Patron using the word because it's not considered vulgar like the more common slang. But you're right, that does seem lame... :(

Carrie - cool! If you choose to read it, we'd love to hear your opinion! :)

Tami - LOL! Yeah, can't forget the parsley slicer. You never know when you might need that in the desert. :)

PJ - yeah, the whole scrotum controversy was weird. Then again, I'm not one to shield kids from everything, just the things they aren't ready for.

Jacqui - I am SO glad you brought this up. I had originally intended to talk about some of the things I liked in the book, but got too focused on the things that didn't work for me. I agree that the characters are unique and interesting, the setting is well done, and I absolutely loved Lucky's survival kit. It really fit her and her situation. So thanks for bringing up the good parts of the book. :)

Anne - I have wondered the same thing about Newbery panels and whether they have kids...they seem to be choosing books that appeal more to adults than kids.

Merc - thanks! I'm not focused on awards either, though I generally like what the National Book Awards pick. Good craft, good story, good characters. It's rare that we don't agree. :)

Mary - it's still worth reading, and there are good parts to the book that I didn't mention (thanks again to Jacqui for bringing that up!). I hope there's a copy in your neck of the woods! :)

Paul - yeah, I'd originally planned to talk about the things I liked, such as the Survival Kit, but got too focused on the things that didn't make sense. My brain is logic-oriented, so if there are logic problems I have a hard time breaking away from that. :) As far as the other picks for that year, I prefered RULES to this. But that's probably just personal preference. :)

Mary - thanks for stopping by! :)

Bish - I've heard the 'who knows who' comment before. That's probably in all the awards to a certain extent. Heck, it's in everything to a certain extent. :) But this book is still an interesting read, so if you choose to read it I hope you'll share your opinion! :)