This was an experiment for Gary D. Schmidt: a foray into sci fi. The story concerns Tommy Pepper, his father (an artist), and his sister Patty (a first grader who hasn’t spoken a word since her mother’s death) as they work through grief over the loss of Mrs. Pepper. In the midst of this, a chain arrives from a distant world that carries with it mysterious artistic powers and a snarl of political conflict. I liked the book, with some reservations.
First, the earth storyline alternates with the other world’s events, which are related in italicized text and “elevated” (ponderous) diction. The other world has a different vocabulary, so Schmidt experiments in the style of other books with invented languages (like A Clockwork Orange), expecting the reader to work toward understanding word meanings from context. There is a glossary in the back, but I wouldn’t have known that if another blogger hadn’t pointed it out. (Thanks, Sherry!) I groaned inwardly every time one of the “alternative” chapters began, because it seemed like a mere delay tactic; I didn’t care much about the other world, and it didn’t seem worth the effort of slogging through the dense prose of these chapters.
I did, however, really like the Peppers’ world in the shoreline community of Plymouth. It was full of evocations of Plymouth’s ocean landscape, and full of the often amusing world of Tommy’s 6th grade class. The family’s situation is poignant, and Schmidt writes skillfully about how they struggle to come to terms with loss. I cared a lot about them and didn’t mind the stretches of credibility that came from time to time. In fact, it’s safe to say I loved the earth storyline and tore through these sections with eager interest.
Tommy finds himself filled with strange new abilities and words when he puts on the chain. The end result is that in the time of crisis, art helps to supply some terms for dealing with a traumatic event in the family’s life, then it recedes. Everything resolved a little too quickly and unrealistically at the end, but I didn’t mind this as much as the alternating between worlds. Somehow that part didn’t work well for me, even though the idea of a “galaxy far, far away” that the characters can make contact with and find common ground with is appealing to me.