Monday, November 19, 2012

Spud by John van de Ruit

by John van de Ruit
Razorbill, 2007
331 pages

It's late and I probably shouldn't be writing this right now, but I doubt I'll sleep until I get some of this out of my system. This book has done its level best to destroy me, and I'm fighting back. Talk about reading outside one's comfort zone.

It's hard to talk about this. Did I love this book? Certainly parts of it. Did I hate this book? I'm not sure, but there were parts I think I can fairly say I hated. And whether I love it or hate it, this book has caused me no end of trouble since I picked it off the shelf, a lot of that my own damn fault.

To begin with, I did a thing that no librarian should do: I recommended this book to my brand-spanking-new after school club without having read it myself first. Now, to be fair, it is highly recommended by many whose opinions I respect, and its "target age" is between 12-18, which puts it right about in the ballpark for a book club of 12-13 year-olds. What I should have recognized, and did pretty much from the outset once I had started reading it is that my particular group of 12-13 year-olds isn't ready for Spud. I am a proponent of reading fearlessly, I am not a fan of censorship, I think there is space for controversy in every librarian's job. I also think that reading the right book at the wrong time can be a disaster for the reader and the book. (See: my long-held hatred of Bridge to Terabithia.) My librarian-spidey-senses are telling me that for at least five of the nine kids in the group, this is really not the right time.

So now, of course, I have to go back to them with a mea culpa. I plan on being totally honest with them: I recommended this book based on the information I had, but I hadn't actually read it, and now that I have I'm not comfortable with the choice. They're welcome to read it on their own, but I've got a couple other options for our book club that will scratch the same itch. (Schooled by Gordon Korman will be arriving just in the nick of time, I hope.)

And that's just the first bit of trouble that Spud has caused me.

Summary time!

John Milton is a very bright thirteen-year-old prepubescent boy heading off to a very prestigious all-boys boarding school in South Africa in 1990. While he is there for his first year, Nelson Mandela will be released, apartheid will start to unravel, he will fall in love with two different girls (not counting Julia Roberts), and encounter sex, great literature, death, cricket, theatre, vicious enemies, and good friends. And we have access to it all, because John "Spud" Milton is a crack diarist.

And when I say all, I mean all. Spud lets us in to his very deepest thoughts and desires, as well as chronicling everything he sees around him, leaving nothing out. It's crass, tender, brilliant, occasionally sad, often completely horrifying, and wickedly, wickedly funny. It's easy to read, even when Spud is going places I fear to tread, and he makes such an engaging, sympathetic narrator that right from the first entries the reader is rooting for him.

It's an interesting book to read right now with the bullying issue so prevalent in the media. As with Spud's friend Gecko, I cannot imagine a worse Hell than an all-boys boarding school; Spud is far more resilient than I could imagine being, far more brave (despite seeing himself a coward), and far more humane than I could imagine being under the conditions he describes. This isn't the happy boarding school world of Hogwarts. This is a viciously mean-minded place, where your friends are just as likely to turn on you as your enemies and going for help is considered a punishable betrayal. There's chronic physical and sexual assault, verbal taunts, daily humiliations... it's foul. And reading about it leaves one vaguely horrified because one knows that it's not really made up. This stuff happened. Happens. What is amazing is that anyone can come out of a situation like that and not end up a sociopath. It does become abundantly clear why kids in bad situations like this don't stand up for the bullied, though, or go to adults for help. They simply can't.

It's not all terror and misery, and Spud manages to walk just this side of the line of being the smallest and most pathetic, easiest to pick on. He's got characteristics that give him some street cred, despite his size and beautiful soprano voice. He's likable, he's clever, he's brave enough. He's a good cricketer and he's got some sort of attraction for the female sex, which while being more trouble than it's worth is also his ticket to being accepted by his peers. And it's refreshing to read a book directed at kids between 12-18 that deals so frankly and honestly with the physical as well as the mental aspects of budding sexuality. Spud doesn't think about sex all the time, but it's not that far from his thoughts ever, which feels about right for both males and females of his age.

Happily for the reader, Spud is really, really funny. Not always on purpose, but he's generally pretty good at seeing the amusing side of things, too, so the reader is laughing with him rather than at him, as he incredulously reports the madness of events around him. His family is utterly dysfunctional; his father is a drunken, paranoid wannabe who is somehow fairly harmless in spite of himself. (Talking point for book club discussion: his father is pretty racist, and I use the word "harmless" -- but even if his father is totally ineffectual and a laughing-stock, is he truly "harmless" in his bigotry?) His grandmother, "affectionately" called Wombat, is convinced everyone is stealing from her -- things like her yoghurt. As Spud says, he's pretty capable of taking what school throws at him because he's used to the complete insanity of the world. And Spud is also compassionate and considerate, trying to do the right thing while maintaining his own grip on sanity, which he (not unreasonably) tends to think he's losing at various points.

John van de Ruit, as one might guess, has inhabited Spud so thoroughly that he disappears into the text. There doesn't seem to be an author, just a kid writing in his diary. Which is mostly good, but can also be a bit difficult in that Spud sometimes can't or won't go places an author could; the depth and seriousness sometimes gets undercut or ignored. Sometimes it feels like it gets undercut for laughs, but one could read that as Spud trying to use humour to cope.

The ending, which I absolutely will not spoil for you, felt very sour compared to the rest of the story because the crisis event happens so close to the end of term that Spud doesn't really get a chance to work through it to this reader's satisfaction. Sitting back a bit, I realize that it would be unfair to ask Spud to be more thorough in his analysis and recovery, because he's a 14-year-old kid writing in a dairy. So it's authentic, perhaps, but it's abrupt. I felt like I was left hanging. And not in a way that leaves me clamouring for a sequel; it's not that kind of hanging. I'd say more but I'll start to give things away. However, I'm writing this review at midnight even though smallfry is asleep and I should be too, because I needed some time to deal with what happened.

Do I think you should read this book? Yes. Read this book and then come back here and talk to me about it. This is a great, refreshing, darkly funny, extremely-well-written book. As you can probably tell from the length of this entry, I want to talk about this book. I think there's incredible amounts of fodder for discussion here, and perhaps someday I will take a crack at it with a book club, when the time is right.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I've had my book club meeting, and explained my discomfort to the kids; they promptly asked why, so I explained that too. Then instead of telling them we weren't doing the book, I said I wasn't going to tell them they had to read it, but they could choose to read it or Schooled. Of the seven at the meeting, two took Spud home, and five took Schooled. Kids are the best judges of their own comfort levels. I'm looking forward to our discussion!


christina said...

Oooh I loved Schooled. It was one of my all time faves a few years ago when I read it and still holds a soft spot in my heart.

I'm interested in how you run your after school book club. Do you all read according to a theme (since obviously here there were different choices made)?

Jill said...

Oh, now I definitely have to read this! I think it's great that you were honest with your kids, and that they made conscious choices about what works best for them. Sounds like everyone concerned learned a lot!

Ps. Don't even get me started on The Bridge to Terabithia. Shudder.

Unknown said...

Christina -- spoke with a couple of the kids today, they are loving Schooled too. Even the ones who weren't excited about it!

I'm just really starting with the after school club and I'm making it up as we go along. Tentatively, we meet every week on Tuesdays, and the first Tuesday of the month is the "book club" meeting -- the other Tuesdays we intend to have games, speakers, etc (next year we'll be starting a "reading buddies" program with the local preschool, I hope). This week they were working on a big Rube Goldberg machine that we hope to videotape for the library website next week. I have let them have a direct say in what we do; they wanted to do the Rube Goldberg, I said I'd get them what they needed.

The book club portion, they told me they didn't want me picking the books for them (they tried that last year and weren't thrilled with the librarian choices.) So I picked a whole range of books (many of which I'd read, but a few -- oops -- which I had not) and let them vote. We were all supposed to read the same thing before I had my panicked realization! So I tried to pick something along similar lines that would appeal to a wider range of them. We'll discuss the similar themes, I think, and the kids can tell each other about the different books.

Next month we're reading Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child which they're all pretty excited about, and which I have read, and should be good fun.

Unknown said...

Darla -- I'd love to hear your take on it. I was pleased with my solution, though I admit at first I'd thought I'd maybe say we couldn't get enough copies of Spud so I'd chosen something else. I'm glad I didn't go that route; I think we'll all get more out of the experience this way. And I totally have learned things! I think the kids respect me more for it, too, which is great.

Re: Bridge to Terabithia: it will never ever be one of my favourite books, but I heard an interview by Katherine Patterson a short time ago and revised my opinion on it. It's based on a true story, something that happened to her son, and writing the book was part of her attempt to make sense of the senseless for herself and her son. I hadn't realized, but knowing that side of it somehow makes the ending easier to take.