Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Writing for me is like stuttering for Victor. Most of the time I feel lonely and isolated and I'm trying every trick I can to spit out the right words. And I mean spit. The words splatter, sputter, and stutter in a  nonsensical way all over the page. The random mishmash starts to take shape after multiple rewrites that usually leaves me frustrated, vulnerable, and exhausted when finished. Writing is difficult for me because it requires focus and my ADHD tendencies get in the way. Exercise is the best trick for me, but it doesn't always work. This train of thought happened when I accidentally spelled "Victor's" name, "victory" which is basically the overarching message: do not give up no matter what problem or suffering you face in life. Whether you stutter, are hyperactive, or have an issue, dealing with it requires action on your part in order to move on and grow as a person.

Eleven-year-old Victor suffers from stuttering to the point that he can't talk. Most words are impossible for him to utter. When he takes on his best friend, Rat's, paper route he is showing courage and kindness. Victor is an amazing pitcher with a fastball that no one can match in middle school. When he splits Rat's lip who was catching for him as a result of showing off, he agrees to take on Rat's paper route as Rat visits relatives on the farm for the month of July. The thought of talking to customers to collect money terrifies Victor because most don't know how to deal with his disability. He resents that people think he is stupid, try to finish his sentences for him, and act uncomfortable.  He learns on the paper route the importance of talking about his problem, not giving up, working hard, and that his suffering can bring inner strength.

When Victor meets Mr. Spiro on the paper route he likes him like Mam because the two look him in the eye and are good listeners. Mam is the black maid and while Victor calls her his best friend, she doesn't always give him satisfying answers about his stuttering. She says its God's plan which doesn't make sense to Victor because it makes God seem cruel. Victor likes Mr. Spiro's honest answers and that he treats Victor's questions with respect which inspires him to ask Mr. Spiro why he stutters. Asking this question is a huge step for Victor for it is his first step toward understanding and facing his problem versus feeling there is something wrong with himself. The author suggests that problems need to be verbalized no matter what they are before a person can tackle them.

The plot is well done and has some complex issues. There is an unhappy housewife, a creepy junkman, a mystery of birth, a philosophical Navy man, and a racially divided South. The plot pulls together these different threads and I only had a minor question regarding why Victor jumped to the conclusion that Mam was injured by a specific person. I thought that if some of the information given later in the story could have been put earlier so as to warrant Victor's suspicions. As is, it felt contrived in order to move the plot forward. The plot's unpredictability kept me flipping the pages. Younger readers might have problems understanding some of the issues and making inferences. One of the characters has an affair and is an alcoholic who is abused. The end suggests some reconciliation. Victor's mom hints they might not have Mam in the future. Perhaps there will be a sequel?

Mr. Spiro's four words: student, servant, seller, seeker are explained in a letter as the "quartering of the soul" and share his philosophy about life. Up to that point Mr. Spiro has made references to philosophers Socrates, Voltaire, and Martin Heidegger who explore theories on profound questions. When Victor and Mr. Spiro discuss Jason and the Argonauts that conversation involves more the philosophical question of universal truths found in fiction versus the actual story of "The Golden Fleece." Mr. Spiro becomes an important mentor and friend to Victor. At the end when he leaves before Victor can ask about his father, Victor is able to answer the question on his own; a symbol that he has grown into an independent thinker. Mr. Spiro wants Victor to embrace those words and give them his own meaning.

To reflect Victor's stuttering the author uses the letters "s" creating sentences such as:
How'd your week go, son?
s-s-s-s Hot. s-s-s-s But okay.
The four words: student, servant, seller, seeker also begin with the letter "s" and reflect Victor's stuttering. In fact, the format of the book cleverly reflects Victor's difficulty with getting words out through the use of extra white space, justified paragraphs, and missing quotation marks with the dialogue. Much of the humor comes from play on words as a result of Victor's disability. He mispronounces his friend Art's name, Rat, and Rat doesn't care. He likes the different words Victor stutters and has his own problems speaking. Although I think it is Art's way of making Victor feel better and make a point that Victor need not take his stuttering so seriously. My favorite is Art or Rat calling "wicker furniture," "wicked furniture." An interesting contrast to Victor's problem is his mother who doesn't understand the meaning of words. When she asks the doctor if Victor's stuttering is "generic," his father interjects that she means "genetic." Later she uses "segregation" when she means "integration" and so on. Victor thinks it might be worse to not understand than not speak.

Victor's internal changes occur on the paper route when he has to deal with a boy, Willie, who steals his newspaper bundle. He picks up a rock and is going to throw it at the back of Willie's head as he's getting away on his bike, until he realizes that it would be much easier doing that than talking to the boy. The next time he sees Willie he courageously walks up to him, shakes his bundle in his face and says it is his. Willie says to take it easy and the two get along afterwards. Victor is learning to handle his own problems and using words to communicate with others. At the end when he stands before the class and tells people he stutters it shows an acceptance of who he is and that he has completely embraced his disability. He has found the inner strength to accept how he is and be vulnerable to others to openly discuss his stutter versus trying to hide it and be negative.

The terrific character development shows different suffering in others as well as Victor. Mam suffers from the loss of someone. I didn't understand why she thought she could take on the villain considering he put her out of commission for several days, but she is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who is fearless. His wealthy mother suffers from not understanding words or her son. She is somewhat shallow in comparison to his loving father and doesn't even know Victor's tastes in food. Mam is his mother figure and he calls her his best friend and usually eats with her versus his parents.

The setting is rooted in the 1950s in Memphis, Tennessee. The Howdy Doody Show, segregation, baseball players, and newspapers show a time before the digital age. The segregation issues are a subplot to Victor's coming of age story and his attempt to overcome his disability. I thought the episode at the zoo was interesting and didn't know photobooths were segregated. The bus situation touches on the slow changes of integration and could be a discussion point regarding Jim Crow laws.

Be sure to read the Author's note at the end that explains the authenticity of Victor's voice. I particularly liked the quote included by James Earl Jones who knew the pain of a stutter and was able to gain control of his speech through hard work and perseverance: "One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter." Writing reviews feels like that at times, especially when I am unfocused. If you met me you wouldn't think I had ADHD. I've learned to live with it and manage it quite well. And even though it is difficult, I like blogging because I can reflect on stories that express truths about human nature and help me grow as a person, as well as, promote excellent stories to students in my job as a librarian. This winner will be easy to book talk. Don't pass this one up!

4 Smileys

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