Gary Schmidt’s latest middle grade book, Okay For Now, is a funny, tragic, redemptive read. With a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review and admiring reviews elsewhere, it seems clear this book will find the audience it deserves.
A companion to The Wednesday Wars, Okay For Now stands on its own and follows a minor character from the earlier book, Doug Swieteck as he moves with his family upstate to “stupid” Marysville, New York. With one brother in Vietnam and another who brings his troublemaking ways with him, Doug arrives friendless, with his mother as his only ally. She is the sole element of warmth in a family that is dominated by an alcoholic, disappointed bully of a father. If this sounds a grim setup it is, but this is the backdrop to the story, the place Doug starts from. We are privy to Doug’s thoughts, wry observations and a dawning sense of his own possibilities as he meets and befriends Lily Spicer, a smart, no-nonsense girl whose father owns the corner grocery store. The job she gets for him delivering groceries takes him into the town’s kitchens and up to their front doors. The friendship he finds in a few of those houses, coupled with adults at school and the public library who take an interest in him, help Doug to see that he can make different choices than his father and brothers are making.
Doug’s discovery of a glass case in the public library containing a first edition folio of Audubon’s bird prints is the informing moment of his young life. The beauty of the birds and the pleasure he takes in learning to draw them, helped by librarian Mr. Powell, grant him the beginnings of a new identity. The town has been selling off the individual pages one by one as they need the money, and Doug vows to recover the prints and return them to the folio. In the author’s words, to make “one thing in his life whole.”
Doug’s journey of self-discovery develops against a backdrop of the Vietnam War years, small town dynamics and the drama of Doug’s family. The abuse he experiences at the hands of his father and older brother Christopher is held in check by his mother’s love and intervention, and we see Doug working out what kind of man he’d like to be himself. The return of the eldest son, Lucas, from Vietnam, blind and in a wheelchair, and the revelation in front of the whole school of his father’s past cruelty allows Doug to work through the issues of worth and choice that are at the center of this novel.
Mentors come forward, friendships are challenged, and both good and bad things happen in Doug’s life before and during his time in Marysville. The key thing is what you make of the life given to you, and how you allow experience to either spoil or temper you. The writing here is lean and beautiful, the sorrow balanced with humor and while there are no easy answers provided for Doug or the reader, a way forward is made clear. As a young reader I would have found this comforting, at the same time I was crying my eyes out. Kind of like I did as an adult reader.