I can blog about Jake because it's no longer up for award consideration for the Gryphon Award, though a fair smattering of my reading at the moment is geared toward the needs and ideas of that committee. Like reading for reviewing, reading for awards committees is an art in and of itself. I have to balance my critic with my reader. This means leaving room for the contradictions of both keeping an eagle eye out for flaws at narrative, cultural representation, or other levels while also trying to just drop into the absorption of a good narrative. It's like reading for class used to be, back before I finished all the degrees I'm doing.
Jake by Audrey Couloumbis
Jake is ten and it's almost Christmas when his mother slips on the ice in the grocery store parking lot. After that, a lot of things change quickly. His mom is unconscious and has a twisted leg fracture, so Jake has to stay with their neighbor. Even stranger, his grandfather comes to town, and Jake hasn't seen the man since he was a baby, since Jake's father died. His grandfather isn't that friendly at first; he brings a mean dog and the expectations of an ex-Marine, which Jake and his mom don't seem to live up to. And it's all up to Jake, since his mom is unconscious and then in surgery, and he doesn't get to talk to her for days.
Couloumbis tackles the big issues of family, identity, connections lost and reestablished, but never veers from the perspective of a 10-year-old kid, whose deep concern for his mother is peppered with concerns over what will happen for Christmas and whether he'll finally be allowed to have a bike. Since Jake's father died in an accident, Jake's mother has been extremely cautious, but he knows that 10 is old enough to start to take some risks.
And he does, first with his grandfather when he tries swimming, albeit with prior verbal assurance that the old man won't throw him into the deep end. Then he walks his grandfather's dog, and that paves the way to an easier truce between him and his grandfather. Couloumbis opens with Jake remembering the smell of cigarettes, which he associates with his father though his mother corrects him. Couloumbis never spells it out, but instead shows Jake realizing that this is a memory of his grandfather. At the end, in a rare playful moment, his grandfather is bouncing Jake on the bed and Jake says "I remember!"
Had a great conversation with Les yesterday about narratives as information structures, or about a theory of narrative that would look at what is revealed and withheld among the network of characters. This got me thinking, Roland-Barthes-style, about what those "codes" would be of the kind of information that is revealed or withheld. First would be the exploding bomb or other dangerous or magical object. Second would be identities or roles of characters, and there ought to be a special case in which the protagonist's own identity is a central mystery (Harry Potter is just one example). I'd welcome input about other kinds of information, as what I've covered so far hits both ends of Louise Rosenblatt's efferent/aesthetic reading but sort of skips the middle. (What is the middle of that spectrum, anyway? It's called a spectrum, but it's always defined in terms of the dichotomy.)
All while putting together a list of narrative theories and theorists, going back to Aristotle, for my storytelling class this spring, which starts next Thursday.