Monday, May 6, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

Summer's family is having a year of terrible luck. Summer recently recovered from a freak bout of malaria, her brother is a friendless oddball, and her parents just flew to Japan to care for some elderly relatives. That leaves Summer alone with her grandparents for wheat harvesting season. She's usually just along for the ride, but this year, with her grandmother's back pain worsening and her grandfather slowing down, she finds herself facing a lot more responsibility. To make things worse, she's coming down with her first bout of infatuation. And she has only her copy of A Separate Peace and her grandfather's stories to guide her through this troublesome time. 

When Louis Sachar's novel, The Cardturner, came out in 2010, I remember a lot of people saying, "Oh, it's not really a book about bridge!" So I picked it up and gave it a try, and discovered that it is, in fact, a book about bridge. Sachar himself lampshaded that fact by signaling the onset of technical bridge explanations with a whale symbol (a reference to Moby Dick and its notorious technical whaling chapters). He invited the reader to skip those sections if she so chooses. Oh, and I did. But the game of bridge was not effectively quarantined by the whales - it seeped inexorably, unbearably out into the rest of the novel. Or at least the 100 pages I managed to read.

Likewise, I can imagine a defender of  The Thing About Luck saying, "But it's not really about combines!" Honey, it is. Not much happens in this book, but what little action there is concerns itself almost exclusively with the wheat harvesting process. There is a lot of information about combines and other large farm equipment here, and, plot-wise, not a whole lot else. It makes Junonia, by Kevin Henkes, look positively action-packed.

That's a shame, because there's some really excellent writing here. The four main characters - Summer, her brother, and the two grandparents - are all expertly drawn. They are infuriating and sympathetic by turns - 
real people with real fears. The setting is so vividly described that it almost becomes a character in its own right. When I read Kadohata's descriptions of the stark beauty of the wheat fields, I was reminded of Willa Cather and her passionate portraits of the American West. Like My Antonia, this too is a book concerned about the dignity of hard work, the beauty of desolate places, and the struggle of Americans, new and old, to learn who they are and where they belong.

Unfortunately, this is a collection of wonderful characters and settings in search of a plot. I know that "appeal" is a bad word at the Newbery table, but the criteria do require the book to effectively address its intended audience. I honestly can't imagine the intrepid elementary school kid who would make it past the combines to the quiet beauty hidden in The Thing About Luck.  

Publication in June through Atheneum Books (Simon & Schuster)


  1. I'm a sucker for good characters, even if the plot is weak, so I'm looking forward to this one. By the way, sorry about the Newbery - I think (and hope) it's only a matter of time for both you and Sam, though!
    -the other Sam (Bloom)

    1. If you're not much of a plot reader, this book has many admirable qualities. I will be curious to hear your thoughts.

      And thanks! Next time, Gadget.

  2. There was a time in my youth when I felt immortal.

    I was strong. Healthy. Full of life.

    Maybe like you, I felt like I could conquer the world.

    Every day I'd wake up, bursting with energy. Feeling unstoppable.

    I'd go out and exercise full out. Or put in a long day at work. Or go on a weekend adventure with friends to the mountains.

    And at the end of the day? I'd still feel REALLY good.

    Tired, but in a good, relaxing, "hit the sack" kinda way.

    Until one day, it happened.

    I was getting out of the car and for some reason, I twisted my back.

    It immediately seized up. Hunched over with hand on my hip, my muscles spasmed as if to protect it.

    The pain was sharp. Deep. Crippling.

    That was a day I'll never forget. That was the day I realized... I was human.

    Getting out of the car was something I'd done a thousand times before. Why did it happen THAT day, I wondered?

    I've replayed it a thousand times in my head, but I'll never know.

    What I do know is that day set off a chain reaction of events.

    Over the years, more unexpected bouts of pain. Days and even weeks off work.

    Make-you-feel-like-a-zombie pain pills.

    Physical therapy. Alternative therapy. Chiropractic.

    Days of "bed rest" watching Jerry Springer.

    Oh, I hated that term "bed rest." It's so not me.

    Ever since that fateful day, every so often out of the blue, I'll tweak my back again and relive that fateful day as well as the weeks afterward, nursing it back to health.

    Until recently.

    While I was experiencing my most recent painful bout, one of my business partners took pity and shared with me a wonderful natural method that not only relieves back pain in less than 20 minutes, but there's a strong likelihood you'll never have to deal with it again.

    Imagine that!

    I tried it and amazingly, it worked! Within just a few minutes, my back magically "unlocked." The relief was like a warm south Pacific wave, relaxing every muscle in my body.

    After wasting thousands of dollars on useless remedies, days and weeks off work, I was FINALLY FREE from pain.

    I'll be honest. As I've grown older, my experience with back pain has humbled me. When I look at it the right way, maybe it WAS a good thing, because I no longer take my health and body for granted.

    But the great thing is I'm back doing the things I love. Without giving second thought to whether my back will "go out." With this unique method, it's been months since I've experienced even the smallest inkling of pain...

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    All I can say I wish I'd know about this method sooner. But I thank my lucky stars I found it when I did.

    To your health,