True page-turners are rare. Page-turners that address multiple "light" subjects like autism, bullying, sexual abuse, infidelity, racism, and Jewish-Christian relations...even rarer. The Upper Zoo is such a rarity.
Michael Wolf has crafted an accessible and compelling story that tackles some of the most difficult subjects we face in today's world--all while placing his tale in a precisely recreated 1963. We see this world through the mind of Wolf's protagonist, 13-year-old Jonathan Richman, who is navigating his eighth grade year (by itself a challenging endeavor), when his world is turned upside down by disappointment, betrayal, rape, sadness, anti-semitism, and violence. Yet into this darkness bursts the light of wisdom, hope, joy, and love, conveyed mainly through an autistic teenager and cleverly underscored by the infatuation with Thomas Edison of Jonathan's bright, loving younger brother Billy. In the end, the reader is left pitying the villains, seeing in them victims as well as perpetrators, while experiencing hope for Jonathan and others--and for us all--because of the transformational power of love.
The Upper Zoo entertains, enlightens, and encourages the reader while delivering a spiritual message that is piercing but not preachy. Wolf courageously tackles the difficult topics with compassion and wit, drawing the reader into the darkness of it all in sometimes shocking ways, and constructs a resolution that shuns lazy employment of a deus ex machina but leaves the reader prepared to face the uncertainty of the future with hope.
Given the skill of the storyteller, the profound truths expressed, and the ease with which the 270 pages are completed, it would not surprise if The Upper Zoo becomes a widely read and appreciated novel. It is certainly this reviewer's hope that it is not Wolf's last.