My Polly Predicament

h1 August 16th, 2006 by jules

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Polly Horvath’s ever-present muse is one quirky and offbeat and funny benefactor. I love her books. Most of them are geared for the child in the intermediate grades, but I don’t care how old you are, you will love Everything on a Waffle (2001). As a Horn Book reviewer put it, Horvath nails subtlety and slapstick, a difficult thing to do. And 2003′s The Canning Season, a Young Adult title, is compelling storytelling (though if I remember correctly, there were many grumbles in our field over that title snagging the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. I, for one, was happy to see it win. We’ll talk later maybe about Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane getting the 2006 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. What the . . . ???). Horvath has many wonderful books; she’s a talented writer.

But her latest title, The Vacation (2005), is to me — and oh I hate saying it — just okay. Hence, my Polly Predicament — that I’m bummed to not be lovin’ this one.

As usual for Horvath, we’re met with a story of a temporarily orphaned child — in this case, Henry — suddenly left in the care of older, rather oddball female relatives. Henry’s mother has suddenly decided to be a missionary in Africa (not for religious reasons — “just so you can get a free trip to Africa,” Henry’s father accuses her). And his father — against his better judgment — goes with her. Henry, a precocious boy (who says things like “{a}s yet I had no plan to effect my egress”), is left with his Aunt Magnolia and Aunt Pigg, whom he only knows from limited holiday visits. And, even then, they were usually outside smoking. “I don’t think they liked children,” Horvath writes in Henry’s voice. “Maybe they just didn’t like boys. They were extremely adult adults with no play in them.” So, right away we have the Horvath hallmarks — a soon-to-be abandoned child, a nice dose of dark humor (his parents give Henry a depressing list of reasons why he can’t go to Africa with them, including “dangerous animals and things in the water, both microscopic and huge”), and the peculiar, eccentric aunts.

After Henry’s parents leave, Mag and Pigg take Henry out of school, and they all head to the beach for a short stay; Mag thinks a vacation at the beach isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — “lying here eating forbidden junk food which . . . just makes you feel awful, not happy and larkish at all . . .” So they head for the mountains.

Thus begins their journey; chapter by chapter, they head to a new place, taking in the American scenery with all its beauties and flaws. From the Appalachian Trail to Florida (where Henry takes a vague, almost dream-like journey into a swamp, following an autistic child) to Texas to Colorado and more — with Henry meeting some off-beat relatives along the way. They keep in touch via cell phone with Henry’s father, who searches for Henry’s mother, lost in the African jungle while tracking chimps. Pigg gets “lost”; there’s some cat-squishing; and, through it all, Henry’s father has some sage advice to hand down to his son, some that Henry keeps and other one-liners that he discards.

Mag and Pigg are fully-formed characters — real and interesting. They are less outwardly eccentric than previous Horvath characters, but they are genuinely complex, as humans are, on many levels. Pigg, for instance, seems to have issues with weight and body image; Mag has some control issues, to say the least; and, it finally occurs to Henry in the end, they both seem to habitually overcompensate for a bit of dwindling self-esteem.

But Henry’s parents . . . well, I wanted more. We read repeatedly — particularly when the trio visits Henry’s maternal grandfather, almost half-way into the book, the first time in the book I was truly hooked and intrigued as to what might happen — that Henry’s mother is selfish. Henry’s uneasy throughout the entire novel as family around him describe her as “seriously flawed.” And there’s tension in the end of the novel between Henry’s parents. I was wanting more on this, on his mother. What’s really going on? Why did Horvath not round out her limited character sketch of a mother? Perhaps this was on purpose, since Henry’s epiphany in the end is that we can only be responsible for our own happiness, that — no matter the internal issues of everyone around us — it’s not ours to bear:

“They were all, Liesl and the cat people, nice folks and wanted to like you, but the cat people thought they had to make everything okay so that they could like you, which they wanted to do, but they had to fix up circumstances or you first, so they scurried to do that, but Liesl had changed herself in some profound way so that the okay part somehow came instead from inside her and the outside circumstances didn’t matter at all. And then I could see that nothing from the outside had to change the way I was. And if I wasn’t dependent on outside things, I didn’t have to change them either. I could let them be.”

There are some funny moments; disappointingly, though, I was bored in spots. Horvath is great with leisurely paces and uses those to her advantage to show us the extraordinary in the ordinary. But this was almost too languidly paced for me. Not enough vim and vigor to keep me interested in spots. A Horn Book reviewer described this one as “bitingly funny.” I know, I know — to each his own. But I wonder, did I read the same book? Horvath is usually rollicking, but I just wasn’t rollicked. Not that she has to rollick in every book, but I think I was supposed to be rollicked.

Any other Horvath fans or children’s librarians (or anyone else) read this? I welcome a debate if you loved it. Talk me into liking it more, please.

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2 comments to “My Polly Predicament”

  1. Just found out about your blog at child_lit

    The Vacation is the only Horvath book I’ve read. While I enjoyed it, it seemed very adult to me. As you pointed out, the aunts are very well developed. It seemed to be their story, rather than a child’s story. A child just happened to be narrating it. There were also some sections that I thought were supposed to be more profound than they actually were–or than I found them, anyway.


  2. Gail, yes to the profound part! I found that to be true, too, but you articulated it well. What really bummed me the most is that I was utterly bored in spots. I’ve never responded to a Horvath book that way. Still love her, don’t get me wrong. But this one just wasn’t as tightly-written, it seems. But I’d still welcome any arguments to that :). Thanks for visisting our blog and posting . . . — Julie


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