It is September 1979, the start of a new school year and you know what that means; the buses are fuelled to the brim, the kids are fully charged, old friends are reunited, and teachers have their red felt pen ready for harsh criticism. All Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wants to do is walk through the doors at Helen Keller Junior High, steer clear of others, consume as much information as possible, and avoid being touched by others at all costs. Is that too much to ask? Unfortunately for Boo, he is thirteen, an age where differences are accentuated, people are segregated into cliques, and of course, boys will be boys. Boo wouldn’t mind so much as long as they didn’t have to get physical when they humiliated him. Shame me, ridicule me just don’t touch. Boo is a very peculiar young boy with advanced intelligence who views the likes of reputed scientists Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall as his honourary parents. On a seemingly normal day Boo’s one discernible fatal flaw comes back to rear its ugly head.
“A geek was originally a circus artist who performed morbid acts like biting heads off live chickens and swallowing frogs. I am obviously, given my vegetarian diet, no geek. As for f*ggot, I have no tentendencies, homosexual or heterosexual, and since I am forever thirteen and dislike touching others, I may never develop any sexual interest – which, from what I hear about sex, is for the best.”
Boo wakes up not knowing where he is or what had happened to cause this disillusion? What he remembers last was going over his defense mechanism of memorizing the periodic table while some fellow students were picking on him and then nothing but blank space and silence. After coming to, he realizes that he is no longer in front of his locker and no longer in Hoffman States, Illinois. With a scientific approach he investigates his surroundings and gathers his bearings. He is told by a welcoming agent that he is dead, but dead from what? Being agnostic it’s hard for even the most intelligent of person like Boo to decipher; but one thing is for sure is that it is certainly other worldly. Boo is in a place simply called “Town” complete with residents that are referred to as gommers, dogooders, sadcons, and townies residing in an environment made specifically for them. Everyone is American; they are all thirteen-years-old and will stay that way for a long time. A place where you can never lose weight, gain muscle or cure an acne problem, the way you looked when you died is the way you will stay in Town. As Boo goes about his business, learning the ins and outs of this new society he realizes that he is more sociable and a hell of a lot dumber than he remembered. Friendship is also easier to accomplish when your dead, but Boo still has a lot to learn.
“I am unfamiliar with the art of friendship: the teasing, quarreling, and reconciling. How many days should a person remain upset, for example, when a friend utters an insensitive comment or shows disloyalty? These are figures I should jot in my ledger.”
With a clever, albeit a different type of narrator and a curious concept brought to the fore, the story of Boo seemingly transcends time with themes that people can relate to from generation to generation. With questions like what does it feel like when you die? Where do we go? What happens? The author is able to combine common problems while growing up in a fast moving world with the social dynamics that really have only exacerbated student issues that are quite common today. This book also pleases the book lover as many of the streets and institutions found within the real world as well as the after life are named after famous literary characters. From Johnathan Seagull public library, to Sal Paradise mental asylum, to Phoebe Caulfield corn field, to Ponyboy Curtis farmhouse, this book had many references that will probably leave you with a positive bias beyond completion. To me its merits go beyond these factors.
” ‘IN THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH WE ARE PERMITTED TO REMAIN CHILDREN ALL OUR LIVES.’ It is a quote from Albert Einstein. I hope it is not too obscure. I simply mean to say I will keep an open mind and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding us.”
In a more direct sense this book demonstrates the power that bullying can have on even the most resilient of victims. Boo is a first hand look at how people can judge others based on circumstances rather than getting the whole story, and how important friendships are to personal growth. I must confess that I had my reservations before reading this book. I mean, a book about teenage angst, death, afterlife narration doesn’t suggest advanced reading material. But it offered something that all ages can relate too and distinct factors that each marketed demographic can enjoy. I personally enjoyed the weightiness that the author was able to convey and the profound darkness that permeated from some of the characters in parts of the book. This is most certainly not some syrupy sweet and simple coming of age novel. This is a deep and hopelessly-sad book about a boy going through a whirlwind of emotions that he has never had to feel, yet still remains optimistic that questions will be answered. As positive as Boo makes you feel you can’t help but notice a depressing undertone from beginning to end. It promotes a level of sympathy, but also perhaps opens your eyes and heightens your levels of awareness to some of the troubles children face today in a not so in your face after school special manner. I enjoyed my time reading this novel and appreciate that the author was able to deliver something we all can enjoy.