In this poignant, perceptive, witty novel, Gary D. Schmidt brings authenticity and emotion to multiple plot strands, weaving in themes of grief, loss, redemption, achievement, and love. Following the death of her closest friend in summer 1968, Meryl Lee Kowalski goes off to St. Elene's Preparatory Academy for Girls, where she struggles to navigate the venerable boarding school's traditions and a social structure heavily weighted toward students from wealthy backgrounds.
In a parallel story, Matt Coffin has wound up on the Maine coast near St. Elene's with a pillowcase full of money lifted from the leader of a criminal gang, fearing the gang's relentless, destructive pursuit. Both young people gradually dispel their loneliness, finding a way to be hopeful and also finding each other.---from the publisher
400 pages 978-0544084773 Ages 10 and up
Keywords: If You Liked Wednesday Wars, 1960s, boarding school, homeless, boy on the run, grief, loss, redemption, summer, economic diversity, loneliness, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old
“‘All the same,’ said the Scarecrow, ‘I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.’
‘I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodsman, ‘for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.’
Dorothy did not say anything, for she was puzzled to know which of her two friends was right.”
-- L. Frank Baum, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900)
“Little birdie, little birdie
Come sing to me your song
I’ve a short while to be here
And a long time to be gone”
-- Pete Seeger, from “Concert at Town Hall” (1963)
I read for entertainment, for knowledge, and for finding meaning in life. For me, Gary D. Schmidt’s tales are particularly entertaining and meaningful. JUST LIKE THAT, his latest work of historical fiction, is a near-perfect story that brings together characters from several of Schmidt’s previous works.
In the same way that it feels to reunite with old friends after a long hiatus, it was an emotional experience to connect again with the characters Schmidt had introduced me to over the years. Not every amazing book stretches out into a long, multi-book series like HOMECOMING, ROLL OF THUNDER, and HARRY POTTER (some of my favorite series), but I hadn’t yet had enough of these characters. It was exciting that Gary Schmidt continued the story lines from THE WEDNESDAY WARS and OKAY FOR NOW. And it really blew my mind to have him bring us back to the land of LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY.
The characters of THE WEDNESDAY WARS would be memorable to any reader, but I was especially connected because the story was set in my childhood stomping grounds, and Holling Hoodhood, Doug Swieteck, and Meryl Lee Kowalski were in seventh grade during the 1967-68 school year, just like me. I imagine myself crossing paths with these kids at some point in my early years.
That’s why I cried within a minute of starting this book. We last saw Holling on page 12 of OKAY FOR NOW. Doug, the central character in that book, was about to move upstate. Holling came by to say goodbye and give Doug his precious Yankees warmup jacket autographed by Joe Pepitone.
Now, at the end of the summer. Holling has befallen a terrible fate, and “just like that,” is dead and buried. Meryl Lee is beyond devastated. The new story is set in the 1968-69 school year, and features Meryl Lee and a new character, Matt Coffin. After Holling’s demise, Meryl Lee’s parents decide that she should not return to Camillo Junior HIgh. Instead, she is sent far away, to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy in Maine. There, one of the old locals she will get to know is Willis Hurd, previously seen in LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY. In that story, set in 1912, Willis was a kid. Now he’s a grizzled, old, bayman. And he’s still friends with Turner Buckminster!
Captain Willis Hurd takes Matt Coffin on as his crew. Matt, a mysterious boy with a good heart and strong work ethic, seems to have spent his life parentless and on the run. He doesn't know his birthday or exactly how old he is. In a backstory right out of OLIVER TWIST, Matt spent time as a captive in a child slave gang managed by Leonidas Shug. Matt was compelled to pickpocket in exchange for protection. (It’s intriguing to subsequently see Matt reading OLIVER TWIST, unable to put it down.) But when Shug murders Matt’s best friend Georgie, Matt grabs a pillowcase filled with Shug’s stash of hundred dollar bills and leaves town, running to escape Shug’s vengeance.
In Maine, Matt also meets Dr. Nora MacKnockater, the headmistress of St. Elene’s and a friend of Captain Hurd. Dr. MacKnockater offers Matt a place to live and homeschools him, beginning with reading lessons.
Meanwhile, at St. Elene’s, Meryl Lee is trying to adjust to her new surroundings. In a school full of snooty rich kids, Meryl Lee befriends a pair of young servant girls, whom many of the rich girls treat badly. Her kindness antagonizes Mrs. Connolly, a teacher who also objects to Meryl Lee’s desire to use Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH for a term project. Mrs. Connolly considers Steinbeck a Communist and a valueless, lewd writer.
Through Dr. MacKnockater, Meryl Lee gets to know Matt, and these struggling, damaged young people form a strong connection. As Meryl Lee and Matt get closer, the story takes a dramatic turn as Shug, ever present in the background, relentlessly tracks Matt. As readers, we root for the young couple on multiple levels.
Like THE WEDNESDAY WARS, JUST LIKE THAT illustrates the polarization and culture wars of another era, reminding us that the good old days had their challenges. It takes place at the height of the Vietnam War, when the wealthy were using deferments to keep their sons out of service, while poor and minority kids were being drafted and becoming casualties. During the time that the story takes place, more than half a million young Americans were in uniform. The War becomes personal for several of the story’s characters
Historical fiction set during an important time, characters one cares about, ethical questions, the salvation of an abused kid, adolescents taking care of each other, and a suspenseful chase--it all comes together in a story I couldn’t put down. I’d give this one ten stars out of five.
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
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