Gary Paulsen should be a familiar name among readers of middle-grade/young adult literature. I first ‘met’ Paulsen when I bought a thrift copy of his book Winter Room a long time ago. Since then he has been on my radar, except I often associate him with his earlier titles. When this bright yellow and orange book got my attention during one of my bookstore visits, I was surprised to discover it was one of Paulsen’s newer titles.
According to the brief synopsis at the back cover:
“Fourteen-year-old Finn is a loner, living with his dad and his amazing dog, Dylan. This summer Finn is hoping for a job where he doesn’t have to talk to anyone except his buddy, Matthew. Then he meets Johanna, who’s living next door. She’s a graduate student in her twenties, cool and funny, and she treats Finn as an equal. Dylan thinks she’s great too. Johanna’s dealing with breast cancer, and Matthew and Finn help take care of her—and come to care for her. When she hires Finn to create a garden, his efforts backfire comically. But Johanna, and working in the garden, help Finn discover his hidden talent for connecting with people.”
I’d say that synopsis captures everything, while at the same time capturing nothing. Stories can be summarized and you’d get what it is about, but stories are about the spaces between the plot where the reader looks at a simple narrative and take from it the emotions that only the reader can identify for herself.
This book had me at the first line: “Sometimes having company is not all it’s cracked up to be.” I remember often uttering a similar phrase. I saw myself in Finn and it didn’t take long for me to recognize how such a thin, simple book motivated me to write a review.
More than just a project
Have you ever taken upon a project for yourself only to discover that you need more than 2 hands and one brain to complete it? Growing up, I’ve often believed that man was an island and that people weren’t necessary to make things happen. I survived most of my grade school and high school years with this philosophy, but university years were tough. Each task, a simple report or paper forced me to talk to one more person, two more people, so on and so forth. It had become apparent that No [wo]man was an island.
Finn learned this truth when he took on Johanna’s garden project. His little circle of Him, his dog and his friend Matthew grew to include Johanna. The more he got into the project, learning about plants and failing at his attempts to grow things, he found himself asking for more help from other people. It started with a garden then a fundraiser, all ending up with Finn discovering that there were more people now in his social circle.
I like summer stories that involve projects, may it be writing a story, building a doghouse, or in this case, creating a garden. It reminds me of the film Life as a House featuring Hayden Christensen and Kevin Klein where the house project was never just about the house. It is the metaphors, it is these little things that make one realize that no matter how short-term an undertaking is, it never is short in meaning.
Discovering Who You Are.
When you are young it’s easy to believe who you are now, your preferences and what not is what you’ll always be. I remember being dark, broody and almost aloof about friends and people. I thought myself withdrawn from the crowd and incapable of speaking to other people, making friends and generally interacting with others. Finn is the same. Paulsen’s protagonist is awkward in dealing with people. He doesn’t believe himself able to easily strike a conversation or even being anything to people, until he met Johanna.
Johanna is a catalyst in Finn’s life. While she had cancer, it wasn’t really the cancer that got Finn moving. It was that desire to help someone, to be able to do something, to know something beyond his own comfort zone, something more important than himself needed to be addressed. It is this greater call that moves him to do what he never thought possible—speak in front of people.
The novel had poignant moments, where the reader witnesses Finn discover his feelings, how he cared and how other people mattered in his life. He discovered he was so much more than he initially thought he was…and if anything, at almost 30, I know that the more we interact with people and challenge our comfort zones the more likely we discover ourselves.
The Fleeting Isn’t so Fleeting
“On the day we first met, I asked her if she was named for Johanna from the Bob Dylan song; she didn’t answer and I never thought to ask her again…I finally looked up the lyrics and the last line hit me: “And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” My dad would kill me if I said this to him, but Bob Dylan had it wrong.”
It’s easy to take people, things, and events for granted. It’s easy to pass them off as something fleeting and unimportant. While Johanna did have a cancer and the Big C played a major supporting role in the story, I felt it wasn’t the heart of the story. Johanna and Finn, that is what the story is about. It’s how these two people created an impact on each other’s life. While it was summer…it was fleeting, it wasn’t really fleeting. People change us. Events change us. No matter how short those meetings were, they are never fleeting, we are left with traces of their presence in our lives.
Notes from the Dog is a simple story. It is a simple and real story. A kind of story that isn’t so eventful, but so much like life that when you look closely, allow it to gestate within you, you can’t help but nod at how wise it is about life and growing up.
Read-a-Latte Challenge: 166 (150)