Monday, October 20, 2014

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

A disclaimer: I read this book as an experiment. I have never read a Joey Pigza book. There are multiple Joey Pigza books out there, even a Newbery Honor Joey Pigza book, but I've never touched 'em. I read this book, because often in Newbery Medal discussions, it is important to remove one's bias toward a novel that is part of a series, as past books in a series should not be considered when arguing for a book. I thought it would be fun to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA with no knowledge of any prior Joey Pigza books.

If the Cohen Brothers were to adapt a children's novel, I feel like Joey Pigza would be right up their alley. A little Raising Arizona, a little No Country For Old Men (for kids, of course), THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is one wild, zany ride. There were so many moments where I wondered if things could get any quirkier or out of control for Joey and just at that moment, chaos and havoc would ensue! I'm not quite sure how Joey survived, let alone baby Carter Junior, but they did!

Joey Pigza is turning his life around. His baby brother Carter Junior has brought joy to his life and he is excited about a fresh start at school. Then postpartum depression sets in for his mother and Joey finds himself sacrificing a return to school for the time being in order to be the man of the house and take care of Carter Junior. Things get worse and worse for Joey as his father enters the picture wanting Carter Junior for himself.

While Joey's off-topic, rambling voice as a child with ADHD is rather impressive (his mother hid his only remaining med patches before admitting herself into the hospital), I immediately realized I was at a disadvantage in appreciating this novel without having any background knowledge on the previous Joey Pigza stories. There were too many lingering questions for me that maybe would be cleared up have I had read earlier installments. For instance, what in the heck is wrong with Joey's father's face? Why is he disfigured? Joey is surely sympathetic and forgiving of his father's past transgressions, but as a new reader, I'm left confused. Joey's father comes off as a cartoony James Bond villain. It's difficult to take the relationship seriously without the backstory.

"Here we go again. Just when I thought one good parent was better than two lousy ones I end up with no parents."

And is Joey's mother struggling with drug abuse? I realize she has checked herself into a hospital for what we are led to believe is postpartum depression (she calls Joey from school threatening to hurt Carter Junior), but it seems as if there is more here. Joey's mother is off, and it doesn't seem to be just the postpartum depression. But again, I don't have any background knowledge on Joey's mom. Gantos does a great job building her character ("A mother is supposed to give love, but I can't because I hate myself and now I'm so full up with self-hate I'm filling him with the overflow") but the potentially intentional feeling that it is more than postpartum depression ailing her is upsetting.

As I said, Joey's voice is pretty incredible, and it's hard not to root for him though. Joey has made me look at some of my own students with more patience and understanding. He has a fantastic positive attitude and is determined to rise above the deck he's been dealt in life. He has support from his blind girlfriend Olivia and their relationship is touching throughout the middle section of the novel, but it's not quite enough to change the overall gloomy, depressing tone of this story.

My issue with the story is not with Gantos's writing. Gantos's writing is very good. My issue with the story is that I couldn't really get over my dislike of the mother and father to appreciate Gantos's writing. A commenter over at Heavy Medal took comfort in the ending of the story, feeling that Joey will be able to rise above whatever trouble he may find himself in in the future. I'm not so sure about that. That isn't the feeling I walked away from this novel feeling. Joey is as proactive as they come (paws-i-tive) but it's only a matter of time before mother and father fall off the wagon again. And Joey has a number of more years at home yet!

Any child struggling to find focus in today's world, may find reprieve and solidarity in Joey Pigza. They could do far worse, in regard to writing and role model.

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