A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Deerfield Valley News, 9/5/2018
A Compelling Middle-Grade Novel About Vermont Poverty
Ann Braden, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Sky Pony Press, 2018.
Are there really benefits of being an octopus? Most people would say there aren't, but seventh-grader Zoey knows better. One benefit, she has learned from a discarded DVD and the only book she owns, is that you could camouflage yourself in almost any setting—a useful skill at school when other kids made rude remarks about your dirty clothes and the way they reek of cigarette smoke. Another one is that if you had eight arms, you'd have an easier time dealing with your younger half-siblings (ages 4, 3 and six months) when you had to meet the two older ones at the Head Start bus while Mom worked her shift, walk them to the trailer park, and keep them neat and quiet at home. But even with only two arms, things are the best Zoey can remember. Instead of living in the car, they live in Lenny's perfectly ordered trailer, with a nice lamp and clean curtains and a TV. Lenny is Mom's latest lover, the first one who's solvent and sober. So for a change, Zoey has a little time to devote to her debate packet, preparing to prove that octopuses are the best animal. She really knows her stuff, and she hopes her argument will impress Matt Hubbard, the boy who lives in a grand house on the bus route, and who is running for seventh grade president.
In fact, she forgets her homework in the rush of getting everybody off, and what she learns from watching the well-to-do kids in the class argue for their animals is that no matter how much she knows, their confidence and delivery make them better than she is. Her teacher, however, thinks differently, and she promises that if Zoey stays after school for the debate club, she will drive Zoey to meet the Head Start bus every day. She's as good as her word, so Zoey reluctantly learns the skills of making people question their beliefs and of avoiding the tactic of criticizing her opponents personally instead of demonstrating the flaws in their logic. Gradually she realizes why her mom, who used to be so strong, cowers before Lenny's belligerent criticism. And why her little brother starts hectoring their little sister in Lenny's tone of voice. And why...why they need to leave the only warm, dry home they've ever had.
This is a stunningly good debut novel. Zoey's first person voice is pitch perfect, and her portrayal of poverty is as nuanced as it is detailed. Zoey and her classmate Silas, who goes hunting with his dad on weekends, are (and know they are) easy marks in a primarily wealthy area. A third poor kid, Fuschia, fits in better, but her case has been mishandled by the foster care system, leaving her with her mother and a dangerously violent boyfriend. An after-school lockdown, caused by a shooting incident in the school parking lot, brings out the vast difference between these kids and the wealthy ones: by the end of the next school day, most of the seventh grade is convinced that Silas was the shooter. Somebody has to convince them that they're arguing without evidence. Is Zoey brave enough to do it? Technically a middle grade novel, this is also a must-read for people of all ages—not doctrinaire, not biased, just a straight story with a compelling heroine who is facing the difficulties affecting hundreds of kids in Vermont.