March 08, 2006

Coming Down From the Clouds

Eloquent and elegant New York Times columnist and fiction writer Joyce Maynard spoke last October at the Valencia Street Books very successful LitCrawlYA event organized by Tea and hosted by our sister site's very own a.fortis. I was disappointed not to hear her, but I put her book, The Cloud Chamber on my list of Must Reads. This book is as carefully spun out as a spider's web, and is about the most fragile of things; the dynamics of human interaction. What pushes us over the edge, and what destroys us? What saves us, or causes us to be able to forgive? Maynard is a true thinker, a reader of people, and a careful crafter which makes her a valuable and amazing writer. This is her most recent book to date in the YA category, and I plan to read back to some of her older work.

Nate comes home from school to see a trio of police cars at his home. He sees bloodhounds, hears the barking of the dogs, his mother standing stiffly, shivering, sees the farm hand, muttering to a uniformed officer, and then his father, face bloody, held up between two men, moaning, stumbling from the fields into an ambulance. Like a house of cards goes over with a single, giddy exhalation, all that Nate relied on and cared about is gone in a single breath. He has no idea how what has happened will change his entire world -- the security and comfort of both home and community, gone in but an eyeblink.

If only he can win the Science Fair and create a cloud chamber, Nate knows he can pull things back together. Somehow he'll get to his father, and his father, the big dreamer, the optimistic, opportunistic, impulsive and impervious hero will rally once again, and set things right. He'll send Mom smiling again, save Junie's birthday party; save the farm. If only Nate can win first place at the Science Fair, and take his sister, Junie, with him, to the regionals three hours away, together they'll find the hospital where they're hiding his father. And once they get there, everything will change. Everything. It has to.

Family - the insights of his crazy little sister Junie, the solidity of his Poppa, the shaking of his mother's hands - drive Nate to dig deeper inside himself to become a man sooner than he ever believed he could. Friendships lost and found along the way help Nate to see the world around him with clearer eyes. Though he longs to fling his troubles all on his father, to make him account for his vanished childhood, at the end of the telescope, Nate finds only a thin man instead of a god, and must take the next big steps in growing up and taking on the world. Themes of redemption, forgiveness, optimism and perseverance thread throughout the storyline, taking the reader on an emotional coming of age journey.

Described as both a hopeful and sad book, this novel hits just the right balance between the two, and is masterfully written.

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