Laurel Leaf, 2008 (2006)
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Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke
hits hard with an intense, gripping, compelling story that's wound tight to the very last page. Fifteen-year old Ian McDermott of Spokane, Washington cares for his younger brother, making sure developmentally disabled Sammy does his homework and attends school. Ian narrates his tribulations, inner rage building as he runs errands to earn a dime or two for food, while carrying the load of his own school attendance and homework. Mom disappears from their home on addictive binges, arriving now and then in search of funds. She brings home abusive drug dealers and addicts, forcing the two boys to sleep in the cold shed.
erceived as rebellious and passing over opportunities to better himself, Ian senses that the Morrison High administration would prefer that the McDermotts simply go away. They don't want to deal with Ian's punk style of dress and attitude or his reluctance to participate in sports (even though he beat the senior mile-runner during fitness tests). JV football Coach Schmidt - who resembles a '
marine drill sergeant
' - lives up to her winning title in the women's state arm-wrestling championship four years running. She's tough but encourages Ian, '
You have talent ... and if you play a sport here, you're a leader
', constantly reminding him of the school's standards.
orrison was rated among the top hundred high schools nationwide. Tenth graders countrywide face the Washington Academic Evaluation Examinations (WAEE), required '
to meet federal standards for learning, and besides the coveted rankings pitting schools against each other, they lost money and prestige if students didn't score well
'. Principal Spence (for reasons of his own) suggests that Ian enroll in an alternative school, to which Ian replies '
This school wants me at Kerner or Rolling Hills for this school's benefit, not mine
'. Spence bluntly responds, '
I don't believe your outlook is conducive to a safe, stable environment needed for teaching ... I don't want you at my school, Mr. McDermott. You don't fit
ension mounts when Ian faces charges for throwing a roundhouse punch, knocking basketball Coach Florence out cold and giving him a broken jaw, after he humiliated Ian in front of classmates. With the help of Ian's faithful friend Bernie Campbell (a genius '
disguised as a runt-bodied prankster
'), who has issues in his own home life, Ian and Sammy pack necessities and run. They hope to find the one person who might offer aid - their Dad, who left Spokane before Sammy was born, and has not been seen since. Before they leave, vice principal Ms. Veer makes an attempt to convince Ian to face the charges and straighten out the situation. But her words are to no avail.
an had once seen a letter from Dad with a return address in Walla Walla, WA. The twosome face rugged terrain, with minimal food and water, and they dodge law officers. Sammy imagines that Dad is '
', and will take them under his wing, while looking at their running away as a '
'. Not short on humor and an upbeat attitude, Sammy says, '
The good thing about camping is that the bathroom is everywhere!
' Arriving closer to Walla Walla, Ian and Sammy are given a ride right to Dad's address ... '
Burned into the grass slope in ten-foot high letters was PENITENTIARY
'. And so begins Ian and Sammy's story - again.
ichael Harmon's highly recommended
(which would make a great movie) is character and dialog driven, addressing brotherly love, redemption, survival, social, school, and legal issues. With gut-wrenching emotional honesty and profound meaning and delivery, the haunting story will swallow readers into the late-night hours, to absorb each nuance until it brings its young protagonists home. Michael Harmon has also written
The Last Exit to Normal
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