Review: Okay for Now

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I remember when I first heard of John James Audubon’s hunting skills and how he killed hundreds of birds to get the right specimens to make his beautiful drawings.  I was stunned.  His work was always so alive to me, it never occurred to me he had to kill the birds first to study and draw them.  Of course, I grew up in the city, in the 1960s and there was a completely different ethic around conservation than when Audubon was hunting and creating timeless art.  He did immortalize the birds and gave us all a sense of conservation, in that clumsy way that history has of moving forward. 
I first saw his prints when I was child, copies of prints.  I remember gazing at them and being amazed.  But not like Doug Swieter in Gary D. Schmidt’s book, Okay for Now (Clarion Books, 2011), when he first sees the full size plate of the Arctic Tern in Marysville library, in 1968.  To him, the bird is falling into the sea and it’s the most terrifying and beautiful image he as ever seen.
          “I leaned down onto the glass, close to the bird.  I think I started to breathe a little bit more quickly since the glass fogged up and I had to wipe the wet away.  But I couldn’t help it.  Dang, he was so alone.  He was so scared. 
          ”The wings were wide and white, and they swooped back into sharp rays.  And between these, the tail feathers were even sharper, and they narrowed and narrowed, like scissors.  All the layers of his feathers trembled and I could almost see the air rushing past them.  I held my hand as if I had a pencil in it and drew on the glass case, over the tail feathers.  They were so sharp.  If my hand had shaken even a tiny bit, it would have ruined the whole picture.  I drew over the ridges of the wings, and the neck, and the long beak.  And then, at the end, I drew the round and terrified eye.”
          Doug’s fascination with the Arctic tern becomes a turning point in his life.  At 14, he is already falling into a sea of despair.  His family has just moved to “stupid Marysville” to live in the “dump” after his father gets fired for assaulting his boss.  The father gets a job through an old friend and moves them to a horrid little shack.  His father is a mean and abusive man, his mother is long suffering woman.  One of his brother’s is in Vietnam; the other brother uses Doug as a punching bag. 
          No one, in his young life, has allowed him to keep anything of value.  Not his signed Joe Pepitone Yankees baseball cap.  Not his sense of self.  Not his sense of safety.
          Doug finds the library quite by chance, he’s not a fan of books, and it only opens on Saturday.  His fascination with the bird attracts the attention of a library volunteer who offers to teach Doug how to draw.  Doug resists, but he’s obsessed with that bird’s fall, the shape of it, the feeling in it.  He begins a secret life as an art student.  Doug also attracts the attention of a girl named Lil, who likes Doug’s wit and gets him delivery job with her father’s store. 
          What follows is a multi-faceted story of the redemptive nature of human kindness and the power of art over disaster.  Help comes to Doug in a lot of different directions, but so does trouble.  Each problem is worked out in balanced ways by a masterful writer who refuses to let Doug either give up or get his redemption easily.   
          Each chapter opens with a reprint of one of Audubon’s birds.  Doug learns that the Marysville library is selling the prints whenever the city needs a little cash.  Doug can hardly believe it and wants to see the book restored.  He wants one thing in his world to be whole.  Getting one plate returned to the library gives him a sense of his own strength.  Although he catches himself behaving like his thug brother, he finds that adopting a different formula gets him closer to what he needs. 
There are magical moments when lessons from art and mathematics (he’s a natural) bleed over into the rest of life.  When he learns the composition of the Forked-Tailed Petrels, he says, “The two winds were pushing them in different directions, but the petrels were using them to meet in the center of the picture.  That’s what the picture was about:  meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions.
“All movement relies on that kind of tension, you know.”
I found this book deeply moving and gratifying.  It’s the best one I’ve read on how art and kindness can send out ripples of change.  It’s not preachy and is often funny. It doesn’t indulge in gratuitous descriptions of suffering.  It does describe real human hardship, cruelty and suffering.  It is quite frank about how terrible one’s own family can be. 
Schmidt deftly handles the development of the monstrous characters in this book – they don’t become monsters on their own.  But he doesn’t over-sympathize or ask the reader to forgive brutalities.
 There are not too many things around that are whole, you know.  You look hard at most anything, and it’s probably beat up somewhere or other.  Beat up, or dinged up, or missing a piece, or tattooed.  Or maybe something starts out whole and then it turns into junk….
“When you find something that’s whole, you do what you can to keep it that way
“And when you find something that isn’t, then maybe it’s not a bad idea to try to make it whole again.  Maybe.”
Maybe the thing made out of the many different tensions of Doug’s life portrays all the upward motion needed to avert a plunge into the dark sea.
Doug D Schmidt is the author of many books, including two Newberry winners. 
For an interview with him about Okay for Now listen to this story on NPR:

5 thoughts on “Review: Okay for Now

  1. hello Joy,
    actually this the second time i visited your blog.
    Then i only looked at your works not your writing, and am fascinated to your sewing and dolls, for me they are drawing with another media. And liked the colours you used for your sewing and dolls. But this time i am reading what you write, till the end everything in your blog and find that you are an “enchanting”( is this a right word?) writer. Go on writing Joy and why not accompinied with your illustrations? Sorry my english is not good.

  2. Thanks so much. I hope to illustrate my writings at some point. I still am growing as an artist and haven't quite gotten to where I am doing the illustration part consistently. And your English is fine. Enchanting is a wonderful word to hear about my work.

  3. I'd never heard of the artist who killed all the birds before but this is a really interesting post and you've made me want to read this book. Great review!

  4. John James Audubon's (1785-1851)fantastic life size prints of the birds of America have influenced conservationist so much that one of the most influential conservation groups in America is the National Audubon Society. During his lifetime, though, there was little thought of extinction, so he was an avid hunter, but he preserved the birds in his fantastic paintings. The novel Okay for Now doesn't speak about Audubon's history much, but has wonderful descriptions of how motion, perspective and feelings are presented in art and in life.

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