Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp

Alison DeCamp's skewed humor reminds me of the oddball Ole and Lena jokes I heard growing up, you betcha. Eleven-year-old Stan Slater is like dumb Ole and the women, Geri and Granny in particular, are like Lena who tends to be the smart one. Ole and Lena make language mistakes all the time and Stan does too. He's either thinking out loud and scrambling to cover inappropriate comments, an overactive imagination, or doing something dumb. This is more sophisticated than Ole and Lena jokes - part of the fun with those two is using a silly accent and broken English. Here, Stan is trying to come to terms with a dad he thought was dead, but actually abandoned him and his mom right after his birth. He writes imaginary letters to himself from his dad and collects advertisements and images of the time with irreverent captions in a scrapbook adding a comedic depth and flavor of what it was like during 1895.

Stan is like one big, overdramatic exclamation point. He's weird. He's funny. He's annoying. He's sexist. He's outwitted, protected, and bullied by the women in his life. And despite these shortcomings he manages to be endearing. Stan's mother along with his cranky Granny, go to work at a logging camp because they are short on cash. Geri, Stan's cousin, picks on him because he is so easy to scare. She wants to be a doctor and convinces him at several points he has yellow fever, quinsy, or a made-up disease. He falls for it every time. She also plays pranks on him or talks him into doing something stupid. He's an easy target for her and when Stan tries to get her back it backfires. They are the roadrunner and coyote with Stan continually falling off the cliff.

Stan's mom is one of the only woman at camp and has three suitors vying for her affections. She gets a bit frustrated when people keep telling her how to raise Stan. Eventually, she stands up to the well-intentioned advice people dole out ranging from her mother to the lumberjacks. She originally married Stan's dad on the advice of her mom, the evil Granny as Stan likes to call her. He gives her an Evil Rating that drops every time she does something nice for him.

Stan is an unreliable narrator that likes to use the phrase, "I am a whiz at... (fill in the blank). I don't mind saying." He's not a whiz at anything. He's a whiz at getting into trouble and reminds me of a whirligig beetle gyrating in the water. He pees outside the door of the cabin because he doesn't want to go to the outhouse in the cold weather. He decides a lumberjack is his dad because he has blue eyes, whistles, and has a nose like him. He's convinced another lumberjack is a murderer and calls him "Stinky Peter" even though he has been nothing but kind to Stan. He takes comments literally and misunderstands or pretends to misunderstand most of them. When his grandma says it is so cold that the "squirrels wear knickers" he can't believe how unladylike she's being.

Stan wants to be a tough man, but he is the opposite - he's afraid of werewolf stories, wears flowered aprons, scrubs pots, even wears his Granny's sock when his goes missing. When the sock shows up he still wears his granny sock. He wants to find his dad so desperately that he makes up letters written by him by his dad. They have Stan's dad humorously commenting on the women in his life and having adventures around the world as an explorer, outlaw, or cowboy in the Wild West.

Stan reflects the sexist attitudes of the times. He calls Granny "woman" and asks "...where is my chow," then clears his throat and spits. He thinks this is how a man acts. Granny gives him a towel to clean up his spit. He doesn't think girls can be doctors, but when he needs stitches he trusts Geri over a man and he is obsessed with being a manly man. He draws whiskers on his face in hopes of being a man. He sticks his tongue on cold metal horse-head hitching posts. At the height of being a ridiculous "chowderhead," he reveals something introspective and he goes from annoying to endearing. Like letting Geri stitch him up. Or saying he is only being manly so he can understand his father and why he abandoned them. The end shows that he understands being a man means being responsible.

The author plays with writing conventions in an original way that strengthens Stan's unreliable character. Stan struggles with this "thinking-in-your-head business" and never quite gets it right. There are no quotations to signal when Stan is thinking out loud or when he is thinking in his head. A character will answer and that is the clue to the reader that Stan said it out loud. It reinforces the author's point that Stan is an unreliable narrator that because of his inexperience in the world, cannot be believed when he makes observations or statements.

This book reminds me of "Timmy Failure," but instead of graphics drawn by the author there are vintage photos with funny captions reflecting Stan's state of mind. The photos are from his scrapbook, but they give a taste of what the 1800's was like with their goofy advertisements. When Stan muses about men and their beards (and how they all look alike) there is a photo of how to trim your beard a bazillion different ways. When Stan tips the outhouse on an unsuspecting adult there is an advertisement for a toilet mask. Not only is this funny, but it adds greatly to the historical setting in a visual way that I have never seen before in a children's book.

Great slang words, similes, and metaphors bounce throughout the narration. Geri is described as "Her eyebrows squeeze together so tightly it looks like two hairy caterpillars are having a conversation on her forehead." Or "...her voice, as cold as the frost I like to scrape off the windows with my fingernail." Don't be "bamboozled" by the "catwampus" humor because it is not all "balderdash" or "poppycock" but shows hope that a goofy boy can grow up into a decent human being. Stan is a whiz at being dorky. I don't mind saying.

5 Smileys

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