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Richie's Picks: HARRY SUE
on August 13, 2005
The closest I ever came to being locked up was in 1974 when, as a result of parting ways with a girlfriend, I found myself in possession of an extra ticket for Joni Mitchell's appearance at the Nassau Coliseum on her Court and Spark tour. Wandering around the venue well before the start of the show, I unwittingly offered to sell the extra ticket to an undercover Nassau County cop who responded by handcuffing me, dragging me into the Coliseum security office, and stripping me. As I wasn't "holding," I was eventually directed not to do anything stupid and released in time for the beginning of the show.
So, alas, I have no experience with joint jive (prison language). Fortunately for me and the younger fish (new prisoners) who get their hands on this book, Harry Sue precedes the telling of her amazing tale by providing an extensive Joint Jive Glossary so that we can understand what she's bumpin' her gums about.
Harriet Susan Clotkin has learned to speak in Conglish (a combination of joint jive and English). She's hoping to soon get over her softheartedness so that she can begin a life of crime, get herself sent up, and hopefully become reunited with the mother she hasn't seen or heard from since she was five, back when her parents were both sent to prison.
"Before we go any further, we have to go back. Way back. Seven years back, to the day of my accident. You can't fully appreciate the saga of Harry Sue unless you know the backstory. Every conette has a backstory. It's hard enough returning to the night that changed my life forever, but if it was up to my road dog, Homer, we'd go back even further.
"You see, Homer would argue that my father, Garnett Clotkin, didn't just show up to our apartment that night swearing and spitting like a rabid dog for no reason at all. Not everyone expresses their anger with violence. Garnett had to be trained to it.
" 'Maybe your granny tied his shoes too tight,' he'd offer, or 'Maybe it was her habit of dunking his head in toilet water when he sassed her.'
"I say, any way you slice it, it's still bread."
That fateful night, unable to convince his wife Mary Bell to take him back, Harry Sue's drunken father had angrily proceeded to throw his daughter out of the window--which happened to be seven stories up. Harry Sue fortunately ended up bouncing around in an elm tree through which she descended in a "slow motion game of pinball," ending up with "a severe case of bruising, a dislocated shoulder, and two broken ribs." Unfortunately, when her mother rushed downstairs after Harry Sue, "she forgot to put away the toy chemistry lab she'd set up on the table to make crystal methamphetamine, or crank as it's called on the street, an illegal drug she mostly used herself to stay awake while working the swing shift at the auto glass factory."
Both parents gone in one fell swoop.
Harry Sue's aforementioned paternal grandmother has always resented Mary Bell, the woman she believes ruined her son's life by getting pregnant. Granny also despises the product of that pregnancy. Unfortunately, Harry Sue has had to spend the past seven years doing time at her grandmother's house. And it's there that, to make a buck, Granny runs a home daycare operation called "Granny's Lap" that makes Christopher Paul Curtis' unscrupulous Sarge character look like a regular Mother Theresa. If there is anywhere that you can especially see the softness of Harry Sue's heart exposed, it's when she hangs out after school with the little "crumb snatchers," to whom she's all taught joint jive, and to whom she tells stories like "The Three Little Pork Rinds," and "Red the Hood."
The one person Harry Sue's always turned to is her longtime road dog (friend you know you can count on), Christopher Dinkins a.k.a. Homer Price.
"Homer's nick came from his habit of dreaming up inventions, and before the accident, building them, too.
"But that was all before he got slammed with, not a deuce, not an eight ball, not a dime, but an all day...Yes, it's true, Fish. Homer Price maxed out with a life sentence for the crime of diving off the Grand Haven pier."
Since surviving that headfirst dive into a rock, Christopher/Homer, who is now a quadriplegic, spends his days lying on his back, gazing out a window in the treehouse that he's designed in the backyard with a lift to get him and his bed up there. He dreams up inventions Harry Sue needs to get by and, in turn, she keeps him company and works hard to pull him out of the dark place he sometimes gets himself boxed into.
Life is a dark place for Harry Sue as well. Having read THE WIZARD OF OZ dozens of times, she sees parallels between her own life and that of Dorothy Gale's. As Harry Sue works on her plans to save the crumb snatchers and to figure out which joint her mother is locked away in, and as Homer tries to make sense of his life without moving parts, new and unusual teachers enter each of their lives.
Despite the edginess of the premise, this is a middle school book free of sexual content and so-called "bad words." As the author details in her "Notes and Acknowledgments," the numerous issues the reader confronts in the book are all based upon real-life incidents. Between the craftsmanship, the issues and, especially, the high-interest, reader-friendly quality of this delightful tale written in joint jive, this is certainly a book that is custom made for teaching in sixth and seventh grades, and a must-have for middle school libraries.
As I'll be telling my own crew, you'd have to be a J-Cat to pass up reading this one.