Thursday, October 02, 2014

Review: Preacher's Boy


Preacher’s Boy
By Katherine Paterson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

About the Book

Paterson captures the essence of an adolescent’s fundamental questions of God and existence in this finely honed novel. As the year 1899 draws to a close, the people in Robbie’s rural Vermont community anticipate the coming of the 20th century with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Some fear that the end is near. Others, like Robbie’s father, a minister with progressive ideas, thinks “the world’s at a sort of beginning.”

Robbie does not know what to believe. Recently he has begun to question God and the validity of the Ten Commandments. As the son of a preacher, he is expected to exhibit exemplary behavior, but he cannot seem to turn the other cheek to those who make fun of his “simple-minded” brother. In a fit of anger, Robbie comes dangerously close to drowning a boy and sets off a chain of irreversible events; he must rely on his conscience to lead him toward redemption.

Once again placing universal conflict in a historical context, Paterson gives a compassionate, absorbing rendering of an adolescent boy trying to break free from social and religious constraints. Besides delving into the mind of the young rebel, she successfully evokes the climate of the times, showing how the townspeople respond to modern inventions, discoveries and ideas. The story contains a moral, but the author remains nearly invisible as she guides her characters through crises, then leaves them to fend for themselves at the dawn of a new era.

My Review

Is the end near? That’s the question Robbie Hewitt faces in Katherine Paterson’s Preacher’s Boy. The year is 1899. The novel follows the troubles of one mischievous boy, our narrator, Robbie. Well, what can one say about him? If you’ve read Tom Sawyer, you know exactly what kind of boy he is. He’s always getting in and out of trouble. Since it seems impossible to stay mad at him, I suppose, you could call him charming too. How much trouble can a boy get into in one year? Quite a bit.

Robbie likes pranks, and this book tells about several of them. Readers know what to expect from Robbie from the very start:

“On Decoration Day, while everyone else in town was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm’s bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall. That was the beginning of all my troubles. It wasn’t that we got caught. In fact, I’ve often thought since that would have been the best thing in the world.”

One of the stories in this novel is that Robbie becomes worried about “the end of the world.” He isn’t worried about where he’ll end up. He’s not sure there is a heaven or a hell. But he is worried about missing out on live. He makes a list of all the things he wants to do before the end. It’s a dreamer’s list, in many ways, but that is part of the charm. For example, he knows it would be ridiculous to write down “own an automobile.” But he can’t stop himself from writing down “riding in an automobile.”

This one has some interesting characters. I wouldn’t ever say this one lacks plot, and by plot I mean action. But to me the charm of this one is in the characters themselves. I liked Robbie. I liked seeing him struggle. I liked seeing tension in his relationship with Elliot, his older brother with special needs. Robbie loves his brother, but he doesn’t always like him. He struggles with his place in the family. It isn’t just that his father is the preacher and everyone in town watches him and judges him. It is that he feels out of sorts in his family. He feels Elliot gets all the attention, all the love and support.

I thought most of Robbie’s family was well-drawn. I liked getting to know Robbie, his dad, and Elliot. I can’t say that his mother and sisters came into the story much. Robbie was also challenged a bit when he met a strange-but-bossy girl with problems of her own.

I liked the setting. I liked the writing. I liked the characters. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this historical coming-of-age novel.

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