62151the higher power of lucky by Susan Patron

Illustrations by Matt Phelan

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.

(hardback) 134 pages.

What are the different ways we come to decide on reading a book? Of the many, I have been considering shopping Atheneum Books’ catalog. I have had good experiences with many of their books. A known and awarded illustrator contributor? Then there are the award-winner lists. What about the interest catching furors? The higher power of lucky by Susan Patron hits each of the weigh-ins. Matt Phelan is 2010 Scott O’Dell winner. The novel is an Atheneum Book, the 2007 Newbery Award Winner, and the controversy-unworthy user of the word “scrotum.”

Noting my distraction of late (a slump (and whine)), I felt good about picking up a read I have meant to read for some time now, and one that is 134 pages.

Natalya had retrieved it from the book crate we’d taken with us on vacation and returned it shortly thereafter. She said it was boring. My almost 10 daughter hardly started to read it before deciding not to. After reading James Patterson’s Maximum Ride (the first and second) most reads would start off dull, I supposed. I was undaunted.

And when I did start off bored I was determined to read anyhow. Sometimes books turn round or reading circumstances change.

I began the higher power of lucky on a lazy Sunday afternoon and finished it on an equally lazy Tuesday following. [Monday was a day’s drive home.] Besides being a short 134 pages with illustrations at intervals along the way, the reading is not difficult. It took me twice as long as I figured it would—and not because profound thought had me skittering off somewhere to contemplate deep and thought-provoking text. I would just get bored.

I love quirky, interesting girl protagonists. Lucky is sure to be one of these. Add an unusual landscape and community [of Hard Pan (pop. 43)] with an endearing populace and I should be sold on this read. Why wasn’t I?

Reading the book came with ideas for recommendations of the “if you liked this, than” sort; And for varying reasons; And with the qualifier that you will most like these others better; which made me feel awful. The list:

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia R. Giff; Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan; Belle Teal by Ann M. Martin; How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor; feathers by Jacqueline Woodson; Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Patron’s story was all right. Lucky, age 10, is the kind of character that interests the reader. And interest usually leads to caring, or at least investment, doesn’t it? Lucky is so interest/investment-worthy that I feel a bit guilty for not caring about her or her plight. Her plight, I think, is that she has yet to figure out her “higher power,” nor discover how to find “the higher power.” Also, she is concerned her guardian is going to abandon her and go back to France. Perhaps, as an adult reader, my perspective is not meant as an audience for this story. I was not worried for her, and I hadn’t even peeked at the last of the book. And it isn’t that Patron doesn’t set up a plausible explanation for the guardian’s return to France. I think that a 10 year old who hasn’t just read an action-packed thrill-suspense will be drawn into Lucky’s concerns.

As for “the higher power,” my almost 10 daughter did ask what this meant. I told her that “the higher power” often referenced God; it was at least something metaphysical, or super-human—you know, a power higher than what you see or feel is available to you. I told her to read the book to see how the author explores or answers her question of “what is ‘the higher power’.” I am curious if my almost 10 would be able to find an answer.

Lucky is ever revisiting the ideas of “the higher power” and “rock-bottom.” She is influenced by her eavesdropping on Anonymous meetings. There are the recovering Alcoholics, Smokers, Eaters… She feels that their situations in some ways mirror her own. She is helpless (being a kid and orphaned) and desires some control—and hope. This “higher power” intrigues her, as it surely is an answer to her abandonment issues, and her vulnerable status as kid and orphan.

But she still had doubts and anxious questions in all the crevices of her brain, especially about how to find her Higher Power.

If she could only find it, Lucky was pretty sure she’d be able to figure out the difference between the things she could change and the things she couldn’t, like in the little prayer of the anonymous people. Because sometimes Lucky wanted to change everything, all the bad things that had happened, and sometimes she wanted everything to stay the same forever. (8)

Lucky is certain there will come an event (or perhaps hopes for it) that will place her at “rock bottom” where the discovery/finding of this higher power will propel her into a more positive direction.

I may have to re-read the higher power of lucky but I am fairly sure the answer to the higher power question is not the “expected” one. The answer I read was: the Higher Power is adaptation, adaptability. Human/nature’s malleability.

Hard Pan is a hardscrabble existence, and yet many of the occupants appear content enough, if not perfect for the landscape. They find and experiment with way s of making Hard Pan survivable, if not plain livable: Short Sammy’s water tower home (55), making commodity foods edible (56-7), post office community center (44).

There is the pragmatic, even when deals are made (if the dog lives…pg3) and signs are read (chapters 14, 15). Parts are scientifically labeled, “scrotum,” “brain crevice,” “brain secretions,” “meanness gland.” Human functions are not left mysterious but are addressed with practical sense, “after about 20 minutes [in the desert] Lucky needed to pee” (107). Lucky lists “good and bad traits for mothers” (14), keeps her “survival kit backpack” stocked and with her at all times (16, 98). As practical as she is, she has a hard time figuring out those things that do not fit, and the story follows her reasoning, or her attempts to reason out the world around her.

Lucky would be a world-famous scientist, a naturalist in the way of a hero of hers, Charles Darwin (43). She would observe and take inspiration from the environment around her. It is in her surroundings that she would find her Higher Power, and within herself, her make-up, “She, Lucky, was perfectly adapted to her environment, the Northern Mojave Desert, and she knew that the sameness of her coloring was exactly right” (93).

In Hard Pan, and in Lucky’s more intimate world, there is just Life—and the necessary adaptation of one to their environment. Bad things happen, things out of our control; sometimes perceived and other times hard fact. Running away only makes matters worse; or sometimes it doesn’t even work properly—as Lucky finds out. Avoidance only seems to prolong the inevitable or the Event. The things that feed into Lucky’s life (and thus the novel) that would come to head, do; from there we get the happy ending at the ending of the novel.

Patron’s characters were excellent, as was her placement of the reader in the setting. I found Lincoln and Miles wonderful, and Short Sammy is one of a kind (and yet not). The buildings and desert landscape are imagined and set into the story with ease. There are amusing and apt similes. This is my favorite:

Lucky had the same jolting feeling as when you’re in a big hurry to pee and you pull down your pants fast and back up to the toilet without looking—but some man or boy before you has forgotten to put the seat down. So your bottom, which is expecting the usual nicely shaped plastic toilet seat, instead lands shocked on the thin rim of the toilet bowl, which is quite a lot colder and lower. Your bottom gets a panic of bad surprise. That was the same thump-on-the-heart shock Lucky got finding out… (73).

The story is fairly straight-forward and has all the elements that should land this novel on any young person’s shelves, on loan or no.  But one might want to borrow this first.

Though the story is not first person narrative, the third limited is in the character of Lucky; by character I mean the voice styling/personality of the 10 year old, 5th grader, protagonist. The author is obviously an adult, but she has written with the consideration of her main character. I am not an elementary school teacher and I am not exposed to a large number of 4th-5th grade narratives, I’ve only my one writerly daughter, so I don’t know of the success of voice styling of the higher power of lucky.

There is an adjustment to the musings of one thing being interrupted by the pervasive thoughts of another. For instance page 8 Lucky is responding to how “a breeze rattled the found object wind chimes at the found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center […] Just the sound of those chimes made Lucky feel cooler. But she still had doubts and anxious questions.” This paragraph follows one explaining how her dog HMS Beagle’s name came to be. I suppose the interruptive nature of her concerns projected onto the fluidity of the natural occurrences (a smoothly told segued story) is reflective of Lucky’s state of being/emotions.

There is a sequence that puzzled me a bit. I am going to interpret here, but mainly I am asking for confirmation or another perspective. Lucky has her mother’s ashes. There had been a memorial service shortly after her mother died in which Lucky was to have sent her mother’s ashes “to the four winds” (64-7). She didn’t. When she runs away she takes her mother’s remains and after she is found she decides to scatter the ashes then and there in the desert, “she had something important to do before she surrendered” (128). I was thinking that her impromptu memorial service returns the attention that Miles has taken; “Everyone was talking at once, asking questions and hugging Miles” (129). The story refocuses more tightly back onto Lucky and the novel finishes. Otherwise, the memorial feels like it comes out of nowhere. Sure, there is mention of the ashes more than a few times, and she does take them with her. The belated memorial just felt sudden and awkward. Yes, I do recall an explanation was offered, “He’d said that the decision she made would be the right one” (129). “He” is the crematory man or possibly father who’d said at the earlier memorial that Lucky needn’t scatter the ashes then, if she wasn’t ready (67). I suppose that the releasing of her mother’s ashes symbolizes a letting go; Lucky and Brigitte can now move on to solidifying their family unit. I can read meaning. However, the moment felt more than ungainly; though I suppose no more ungainly and interruptive than having one’s mother walk out into the after-storm-morning and getting electrocuted by a fallen power line.

I can reason out the ungainly nature of working through ideas or emotions, of trying to interpret the actions of environment in which I find myself (to include relationships). If the story was working to reflect that in technique, I can appreciate the move to do so. I can actually find that fantastic. Perhaps I have enough of my own ungainly concerns at the moment so I was unwilling to take on another’s; especially one possibly more mature (even at 20 years younger).

A bit about the format. The chapters could almost stand alone. I haven’t tried reading just one a pace from the previous, but I did notice the end tied neatly back into the beginning of the numbered and named contents. It doesn’t appear to me as a collection of shorts or vignettes, but it has the sense of a step away of one chapter sliding easily into the next. Also, there is a noteto the reader” on the last page, just past acknowledgements; A nice, informative addition to the book.

I think I will have to re-read the higher power of lucky again at a later time. And I think I should find a 9-11 who will read or has read it and interrog interview get their thoughts on this one…especially what they come away with on the question of the higher power.

There is a sequel to the higher power of lucky, though this does stand well alone. Lucky Breakswas published March 2009 with Matt Phelan back as Illustrator.  I should comment on Phelan’s work with: it is lovely and satisfying. Quiet, unpretentious, expressive–just right.

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