Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Bully Of Barkham Street by Mary Stolz
I've been retrieving fictional treasures from my youth and reading them to our daughters at bedtime. I always hold my breath when I page to the first chapter. My adult tendency is to view my childhood memories with some suspicion, particularly in the daily confrontation of my children's shifting memories. I have found, however, that most of the books I loved as a child hold up very very well to adult scrutiny.
The kids, who are never shy with their negative opinions, are also fond of the books. Ian Fleming's Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (1964, A) was among last year's favorites: so long as at least one child is still in the single-digit age-range, the entire family can listen to this short novel and feel confirmed in the mutual suspicion that, yes, their nutty family is the only one in the world that is universally and comically underestimated.
The Bully Of Barkham Street by Mary Stolz (also 1964, A) is cut from different cloth. Martin Hastings is the title character, and it should be said at the outset that he is not one of those feral creatures who dominates a pack and torments the weak and wounded. He is a loner, but not by choice. Martin has a vivid imagination, and is prone to eager overcompensation whenever someone offers him friendship. This usually concludes in a comic mishap that squelches the earlier promise.
His older sister is fussing over potential boyfriends, both his parents work — his father until late, his mother right up to the brink of supper-time — and every afternoon he arrives home to a house that seems cavernously empty now that his dog has been taken back to the farm. He feels compelled to take out his frustrations on someone or something, and who better than Edward Frost, the mouthy kid next door?
Martin's feelings of alienation and his impulse to feign indifference on the one hand, or to eagerly, desperately reach out on the other are brought vividly to life by Stolz. Late in the book, after yet another school day when Martin's best intentions collapse in ruin, he stares out his bedroom window and into the Frost's back yard.
Edward and his uncle Josh were sitting on the grass together, talking, looking up now and then at the wren house. Argess [Josh's dog] was lying next to Edward her head on his leg.
Watching them, so peaceful, so friendly, with a dog like Argess theirs to pet and call to and be with, Martin was almost engulfed in pain. There was that terrible sensation of half strangling to keep back childish tears, and another feeling — that of being someone completely alone. It reminded him of the way he felt whenever he went in a place where people already were — a classroom, dancing school, even a public place like a drugstore. It always seemed to him that the people who were already there sort of owned the place, belonged there, and that he was an outsider pushing his way in and not welcomed. After a while, of course, he'd get over it, and when other people came in, it was as if he belonged and they didn't. But he hated that feeling of being outside, unwanted, not part.
Who cannot relate to feelings like Martin's? That Martin comes to understand how he can change — how he is changing — for the better, and that he is justified in feeling some measure of triumph by the novel's end, is a testimony to Stolz's patient labor as a story teller. This is a magnificent work of empathy, perfect for 10-year-old listeners — and adult readers.