Doug Swieteck’s home life is painfully dysfunctional. His father, a mean, petty complainer with “quick hands,” loses his job at Culross Lumber because he punched the owner, Mr. Culross. Much to Mr. Swietck’s chagrin, Doug says, Mr. Culross’s “hands [are] even quicker than my father’s.”
After the first few pages, I became leery of reading more of Gary D. Schmidt’s “Okay for Now” because I feared that he would only show the dysfunction in which some children are raised, without offering readers hope. But what starts as a familiar and dreary tale of abuse quickly turns into a powerful story of redemption.
Mr. Swieteck’s equally mean friend Ernie Eco, a.k.a. “the jerk,” helps him secure a new job at Ballard Paper Mill in the Catskills — Marysville to be exact — which is a long way from Long Island, N.Y.
Doug is the youngest of three sons. Unlike Doug’s father, his mother is loving, but she doesn’t protect her children. She and Doug share a special bond, which Mr. Swietck resents. Unfortunately, Doug’s brothers, Lucas and Christopher, are mean and spiteful too, and Doug is abused by them as well.
The day after moving into “The Dump” in Marysville, Doug goes to the library. The first person he meets in this new home town is Lil, a girl his own age. Lil chains up her bike, and Doug, already defensive, takes her actions as a personal affront.
Their first interchange is momentous, changing Doug’s life forever. After saying something snide, Doug realizes he sounds like his abusive older brother. Right then he makes an important, life-changing choice: “I decided I wouldn’t be Lucas.”
Doug, with the help of some townspeople, transcends his upbringing. Parents and family members can sometimes fail, but the important message Schmidt imparts, through his well-drawn and believable characters, is that humans are not machines, and we’re capable of change. Doug’s vow is his first step on the road to redemption. And because of his choice, he and Lil develop a friendship.
Redemption isn’t completed in a vacuum, nor, generally, is it instantaneous. Sometimes an inanimate object like a picture can broaden our perspective or spark our imagination. This is the case with Doug’s first foray into a special room in the library that holds a valuable folio filled with John James Audubon plates. It’s turned to “the most terrifying picture . . . of a bird.” Compelled by Audubon’s picture, Doug traces the contours of the bird with his finger. It shows a bird with “terrified eyes.” Doug realizes he and his siblings also sometimes have “terrified eyes.”
Like a moth drawn to a candle, Doug goes to see the picture repeatedly. Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Powell, a townsman and librarian, observes Doug tracing the outlines of the bird. Mr. Powell offers Doug art lessons. Doug eventually accepts Mr. Powell’s instruction, and proves that he does have artistic talent.
But not all of the Swietecks are as successful as Doug in finding a talent or transitioning into Marysville society. Soon Christopher is accused of stealing, and Doug suffers from the fallout.
But the story wouldn’t be complete if Doug also didn’t help others. It’s interesting to see how Schmidt uses the weakest and youngest family member to start familial healing and also help others within the community.
Reading about abusive people can be disturbing, but Gary Schmidt handles the subject beautifully, showing the devastation wrought by the hate-filled act, but also giving the reader hope. It’s an important novel for teens to read, one that will help them with friends who might also have “terrified eyes.”
Image copyright Clarion Books. Review copies obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Kim Moreland is the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.