Saturday, September 26, 2015

ARC Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

A big thank you to Clarion Books and BEA 2015 for providing this ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review.

So, instead of blogging much this last week, I decided to catch up on some reading. Instead of tackling my current TBR pile, I picked up the Orbiting Jupiter ARC I've been holding onto since early summer. Gary Schmidt is one of my favorite MG/YA authors, and one of the only ones whose contemporary fiction made it onto my all-time favorites list. He is also a funny, nice guy who teaches at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. And I've had the pleasure of meeting him.

All of this means I saved his book because I was positive I would like it. And I did - it was beautiful and sharp, and heartbreaking. Seriously, my heart is still in pain,* and I finished it yesterday.

Orbiting Jupiter is set in rural Maine during a brutal winter (kind of like the last two ). 12 year-old Jack and his family take on foster kid Joseph. Joseph has just been released from incarceration (he tried to kill a teacher), and he has a three month old daughter (he's only 14). But Joseph isn't your average troubled teen. He's full of drive and fervor, intelligence, and he's hardworking. And he loves his absent daughter Jupiter, and the baby's mother, with intense loyalty.
Jack sees this other side of Joseph, and he takes to the other boy like a brother. Jack stands by Joseph's side even when the latter's presence brings him harm, and Joseph eventually opens up to the younger boy.  but events are already in motion that neither of them could foresee.
This could have been cheap melodrama or sensational, but in Schmidt's expert hands, Orbiting Jupiter is a restrained, gorgeous portrait of the true meaning of brotherly love and sacrifice. 

Saying anything more is spoiler territory, so I'll just give you 5 Reasons that you should read Orbiting Jupiter:

1. Gary Schmidt does his research. Schmidt has visited prisons, talked to incarcerated men and boys, and worked with troubled teens.** This experience comes out in all of his contemporary fiction (I highly recommend both The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now). He deals with realities that most people never contemplate, yet he never goes in for extra drama or sensation.

2. Joseph and Jack's relationship. Touching but not saccharine, I found the boy's relationship--how it grew and how they bonded into brothers, even in a short time--to be believable. Jack's determination to love Joseph and always "have his back," despite what adults and other kids said about him [Joseph], almost made me tear up on several occasions. And yet it was authentic-he thought and expressed himself in ways that made perfect sense for a 12 year-old boy.

3. Spare, beautiful writing. Schmidt doesn't waste words. His prose is as clean and sharp as the Maine winter he's describing. Likewise, the book is short but not too short. It is a perfectly formed little story that will linger with you.

4. A positive, but realistic, portrayal of foster parents (and parents in general). Joseph came from a troubled home: he won't talk about his mom, and his dad was abusive and possessive. His experiences with other authority figures, such as teachers, has been quite mixed. But the Hurd family is different. They work hard (on an organic farm) and love hard, and they stick by Joseph even when things are not easy, and get progressively worse. They don't force themselves on him as parents-they just project their love and empathy (mostly seen through Jack's eyes, as he is the narrator). This was refreshing, and very important to the story.
The reason this comes up is that I have read SO many books where negative foster parent situations shape the story. It's almost a literary cliche. And yes, there are many difficulties and problems when you take in a troubled kid, but I know it isn't always a train wreck.*** So this was refreshing.

5. Real world issues and characters that don't usually make the page. This ties a bit into #1, but Gary Schmidt excels at writing young boys (and young men). They are complicated, sometimes troubled, often misunderstood, and frequently irrational - but they are relatable, layered characters. And he uses these characters to tell stories and tackle issues in a quiet, thought-provoking way. And booksellers/moms/librarians take note: preteen and teen guys like his books, so I feel like they fill a special niche. Granted, Orbiting Jupiter deals with a bucketload of adult issues-seen through the eyes of a charming 12 year-old, but none of the things Jack has to tussle with are outside the realm of daily possibility (sadly) for 12 year-old boys!

Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars. A beautifully written, heart-wrenching story about brotherly love and loyalty. Prepare to have your insides twisted.

*Still in pain here

**Hypable did a good interview with Gary here. He told them a bit about his book, and where he drew the inspiration. Also, I highly recommend going to see Gary Schmidt if you have the chance. He's full of touching and hilarious stories.

***I have experienced friends and family who either did foster care/adoption, or were in the system.

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