Doug Swieteck doesn’t care if you like him. He’s just a loser kid from stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug first appeared as a secondary character in Wednesday Wars, for which author Gary Schmidt won a Newbery Honor. Now Doug is back as the main character in Okay for Now, the book I’m reviewing here. Both books feature disappointing fathers, antagonistic teachers who later turn out to be caring adults with some emotional baggage, and pretty girls who become love interests. In both books too, the Vietnam War serves as a backdrop. One big difference, which incidentally is one of my favorite parts of Okay for Now, are the Audubon plates of birds.
At first, Doug thinks everything is stupid and likes to sarcastically throw around the word terrific, which makes him kind of hard to stomach. Then Doug sees those Audubon plates, six of which have been sold from the library’s otherwise pristine copy of Birds of America to folks with the money to afford them, and his world slowly begins to change. Until Doug saw those plates, wearing a baseball cap or jacket signed by Joe Pepitone would have best fit his style. Even braving tough Mrs. Windermere, who acts like someone out of Twilight Zone, would be more on his level. Doug bikes out to her place every Saturday to bring her ice-cream every Saturday, as part of his weekly delivery job for the boss of a girl named Lil whom Doug ends up thinking is terrific for real. Throughout the course of Okay for Now, Doug changes his mind about lots of stuff such as books are stupid, drawing is for chumps, and his life is no one else’s business. Once Doug shows this other side, you’ll find him more palatable. Your heart might even break, the way mine did, at how Doug reacts whenever his family gets accused of theft. I’ve met kids who turn cold whenever their world goes wrong. In those turmoiled times, Doug might let you hug him, except of course then he’d be a chump for accepting such kindness. And what fourteen-year-old boy, even those from the best of homes (which Doug is not), wants to be viewed as a chump?
Now that you have a feel for who Doug is, let’s talk about the adults in Okay for Now. Both of Doug’s parents are around, although in the case of Doug’s dad you have to wonder in the case of his dad how great that is. When in the middle of a conversation with him, his dad cuts him off. About that reaction, Doug says, “That’s all I got out. My father’s hands are quick. That’s the kind of guy he is.” His mom is a different story. Some of the funniest and sweetest moments come from those shared between Doug and his mom. The morning after the family moved to Marysville, his mom observes, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room where you could fry eggs while holding them in your hand,” and then throws a whole glass of water over Doug. No kidding. She smiles and laughs. Doug smiles and laughs. Then he takes another glass and fills it up—and throws the water over her. Soon, they’re having a water war. Doug and her share many moments like that.
After his parents, the adults most involved in Doug’s life are two librarians, the junior high teachers, and the folks he meets on his delivery route for a grocery store. Here we can play a little game of compare-and-contrast. On Doug’s first visit to the library, he arrives too early and so sits on the steps to wait for the library to open. The first librarian looks at him as if he is trespassing and tells him that the steps were not made for him to sit on, especially since by doing so he might prevent others from using the library. Then she sniffs. Given his contrary nature, Doug sprawls his legs out as far as he can spread them and continues to wait. The second librarian arrives shortly afterwards, also wearing glasses on a chain looped around his neck. When he sees Doug, he laughs and says, “I see you’ve met Mrs. Merriam.” As for the teachers, there are plenty of them. Unfortunately, a few days before Washington Irving Junior High started, the local deli was broken into and Doug’s brother was blamed. The geography teacher pauses before handing over a copy of a brand new textbook. The world history teacher announces they’re going to start studying barbarian hordes and looks at Doug. And so the list continues until Doug meets his science teacher. Mr. Ferris tells him that the basic principle of physical science is: “Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.” Loosely translated this means: Doug Swieteck is not his brother. Now if you think that for the rest of the school year all the other teachers ostracizes Doug, think again. Gary Schmidt is much too smart of an author to resort to cliché characters.
* SPOILER ALERT *
That’s why one part of Okay for Now disappointed me: the ending. Without telling you how, let me say that Schmidt made the mistake some authors do of needing to wrap up every last loose end. Moreover, those loose ends were turned into happy ones. If you recall, I shared earlier that I’ve met kids who turn tough whenever the world goes wrong. It’s like they decide that if the world betrays them, than too bad about it. The problem is, it’s pretty hard to shut out the world without giving up on life itself. Yet that’s how some kids handle the world because, if truth be told, criminal brothers and abusive dads don’t typically change. Given how well-written and smart Schmidt wrote the bulk ofOkay for Now, I feel he betrayed all the real Dougs in the world by suggesting that every wrong will eventually get righted. It’s like slapping a happy face on a funeral bulletin. Yet, for everything else that I loved about Okay for Now, I’m still recommending it.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?