The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster – Cary Fagan, Tundra Books, 2019
Art and poetry are potentially a lifeline to everyone, and certainly for an introspective and confused kid whose family is shaken by the worst kind of tragedy that could befall them. In The Collected Works Gretchen Oyster, that kid is middle-school student Hartley Staples, and the tragedy is that his older brother Jackson has left home and may never return. The lifeline which falls at his feet is a series of mysterious postcards, miniature works of art and poetry left around his small town by an unknown creator.
Award-winning author Cary Fagan (author of the picture book, What Are You Doing, Benny) has dropped his novel, like the powerful visual statements which Hartley finds, right into our paths, and his new book (due out September 17, 2019) demands the same kind of attention and offers the same rewards.
Hartley is sad and sardonic, full of careful observations on life in his small town, where the tiny library is so inadequate that he terms it “The Place Where Books Go to Die.” It is outside of this budget-less institution in a repurposed mobile home that Hartley finds the first in a series of small poetry and image collages which turn out to be a kind of message in a bottle from someone as committed to making sense of a senseless universe as is Hartley himself. From that moment on, Hartley begins to carefully assemble a collection of these idiosyncratic cards. Collecting them becomes both a purposeful mission and a distraction from the rest of his life, especially from a home where his loving parents are desperately trying to maintain their own sanity, and to offer Hartley and his younger brother some of the stability that has obviously disappeared from their lives.
What is outstanding about this middle-grade novel, which will certainly be meaningful to teen readers and adults as well? For one thing, Fagan completely avoids the kind of exaggerated misery which is central to so many books for and about teens. Hartley himself alludes to these, as he searches in the library for “something that wasn’t about a kid whose mother was dying or father was dying or girlfriend was dying or whose mother, father, or girlfriend hadn’t been turned into a zombie” Yet the irony beyond Hartley’s dismissal of this genre is that his own parents have experienced a possible death and that they go about their ostensibly normal daily lives in a kind of zombie existence of barely suppressed grief. It’s not that kids’ lives can’t be terrible, Fagan is telling us, it’s the way that they translate that terror into meaning that matters, and which readers will recognize in his story.
The artist who signs her work “G.O.” is also struggling with family issues, with bullying, and, like Hartley, with constructing her own narrative to make sense of her life. Her work is not random; she explains her process in a way which is evidence of the refreshing way in which Fagan respects his readers’ intellectual curiosity. Her work is “kind of like what the Dada artists did back in Europe after World War I…But she wasn’t trying to imitate the Dada artists or anyone else. She wanted to find her own way.”
Having read The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster, I can only compare the connection which I experienced, and which I would have also experienced as a young person, with the one I feel reading the best classic novels for children or adults. One need not have shared Hartley’s specific anxieties or Gretchen’s poetic vision in order to share their need to impose structure on an unsteady universe. Everything will not be so clear, even for a bird looking down, but at least there will be a picture to construct and, at best, to share.