i’m reading an incredible book.
this one is a “just trust me. read it.”
it’s a quick one (technically a young adult book – total page-turner).
it’s connecting a lot of dots for me.
(Side Note: The “connecting a lot of dots” part, while it stands on it’s own as a phrase, obviously, is also in reference to her talk at Grub Street’s 2013 “The Muse and the Marketplace” literary conference in Boston. The link has the transcript of her talk and the video, which is fascinating to me as a writer, a reader, and a human.)
So, with a “just trust me. read it” recommendation from one of my favorite musicians/writers, I hit up my library and a few days later Wonder by R.J. Palacio was in my hands. One page in, I was hooked.
Wonder is primarily about August Pullman. By his own description, he is “not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.” He says that he does ordinary stuff, sure. Eating ice cream. Riding his bike. Playing XBox. However, he knows he’s not ordinary because “ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.”
See, Auggie was born with many medical conditions that affected his face such as a cleft palate and a “previously unknown type of “mandibulofacial dysostosis” In his own words, he declines to describe what he looks like. “Whatever you’re thinking,” he tells us, “it’s probably worse.” Up until the start of the book, he had been home-schooled by his mom but when we come in, his parents are considering sending him to a prep school near where they live in NYC. Understandably, Auggie is scared. Hell, his mom, dad, and older sister, Via are kind of scared, too. How will other kids treat him? While he needs to grow, socialize, learn more than his mom (who isn’t a teacher) can teach him, they also need to consider the fact that people, especially children, can sometimes be cruel. Is it worth it the growth and experiences he might have to send him out, “like a lamb to slaughter” as his father fears.
They’re not unfounded, these fears. At various points throughout the book, he gets called things like Orc, Gollum, (both from Lord of the Rings), an alien, and freak. Kids devise a game called “the plague” which you will get if you touch August and don’t wash your hands within 30 seconds. But the steps that both Auggie’s parents and the director of the school (Mr. Tushman) take to help Auggie acclimate are heartening and heartwrenching. The quiet courage and kindness of some children in his class are wonderful.
Though narrated in first person, the book shifts voices throughout: first up is Auggie, then his sister (Via), his friend (Summer), his friend (Jack), his sister’s boyfriend (Justin), Auggie, his sister’s friend (Miranda), and finally Auggie, again. The change in perspective flows perfectly and offers surprising insight into things that happen in Auggie’s life and, as Amanda Palmer says, connects a lot of dots.
My favorite parts of the book were when those dots get connected and I feel myself expanding. When I saw something happen from one person’s perspective and how it affected that person, I thought I understood what was going on. But then another character would talk about the same thing and blow the lid off what I thought I knew. This was most true when you see the course of Auggie & Jack’s and Via & Miranda’s friendships. Another fantastic part was how Mr. Tushman responded to a particularly ignorant, insensitive parent with what I think amounts to a dignified bitch-slap if ever I read one. The English teacher (Mr. Browne) and his monthly precepts? Awesome. And I’m not ashamed to say the last few chapters made me weep.
This is seriously one of those books that I think everybody in the entire damn world should read. It would help us be kinder to each other, grow up a bit, get out of our own comfort zones and connect the dots to see just how similar, even in our differences, we are. Also? Any book that can manage to bring in references to Star Wars, David Bowie, Sappho, Hamlet, Magnetic Fields, Our Town, Doogie Howser, and The Polyphonic Spree is just fine by me.