Doug Swieteck first showed up in Gary D. Schmidt ’s 2007 Newbery Honor -winning novel “The Wednesday Wars.” Although the hilariously named Holling Hoodhood starred in that novel, his friend Doug – and the entire, dysfunctional Swieteck family – have now gone on to bring life to companion novel Okay for Now. Like “The Wednesday Wars,” “Okay for Now” is set in the late 1960s and aimed at middle school-age readers.
But “Okay for Now” involves a shift of scene away from the Long Island setting so richly portrayed in “The Wednesday Wars.” It’s now the summer of 1968, and the promise of a better job for Doug’s uncompromising – well, to put it bluntly, downright mean – father is taking the Swieteck family away from Long Island to upstate Marysville , N.Y., and the Ballard Paper Mill.
As an eighth-grader, Doug is not happy about the family’s move. He detests their new house – which he refers to as “The Dump” – and his beloved Yankees aren’t even playing on the boring neighbor’s transistor radio in this boring town. Meanwhile, his mother is worried that she’ll lose the connection with Doug’s oldest brother who’s off fighting in a Vietnam delta somewhere. And the brother Doug shares his tiny room with has always been a troublemaker.
Yes, Doug hates everything about Marysville.
Then he discovers the town library and its remarkable collection of John J. Audubon plates from “Birds of America .” He meets someone who believes Doug has artistic talent, and he actually plays horseshoes with an unlikely supporter – his father’s boss, the factory owner.
A Saturday morning job delivering groceries for the local deli connects him to an eccentric writer who also befriends him. And Lil Spicer , classmate and cute girl, notices him.
In this often heartbreaking but always funny novel, Schmidt ties complicated threads into a remarkably satisfying story. Weaving a wounded Vietnam veteran, the Audubon prints, Doug’s seemingly uncooperative gym teacher, and a whole host of characters and events together into a seamless finale could seem impossible. Yet Schmidt orchestrates it beautifully.
He even manages to effectively integrate Audubon’s plates into the story, naming each chapter after a different bird. When Doug studies Audubon’s drawing of the snowy heron, for instance, he ponders the way that the bird’s beak points to the world. He can’t help noticing – and being impressed – that the snowy heron “doesn’t care that the hunter is coming up the path.... he looks at the hunter and says, So what? he sees Possibility.”
That’s what his science teacher has asked the class about the astronauts traveling to the moon in 1969. What will they find there? They will find “possibility.”
Early in the story, when Doug’s friend Lil brings flowers for the Swieteck household, she and Doug plant them. He hopes things will turn out just fine.
“It means something, you know, when people plant things together. By the time we were done, these daisies were strutting their white hearts out in front of The Dump – which didn’t look quite so much like a dump anymore.”
But of course, nothing is fine. Not just yet. There’s plenty of trouble still to come. But by the time they finish this novel, young readers will not only be rooting for Doug Swieteck, they will also have discovered something important about the capacity for love and the power of resiliency.
Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children’s books for the Monitor.