read by Kate Forbes
If you've read Sharon Creech's 1995 Newbery Medalist, Walk Two Moons, you might recognize some characters from that one in Absolutely Normal Chaos, Creech's 1990 novel, which is built around the journal assignment that also appears in Walk Two Moons. The Finney family, as well as some of Phoebe and Sal's classmates from Walk Two Moons, made their first appearance in this book. Absolutely Normal Chaos did not seem to have much press until after Creech won the Newbery, which is why many seem to think it was written after Walk Two Moons. Nope. It came before.
Mary Lou Finney, the second of the five children, is the journal writer in this book. And what a journal it is! She writes "on and on" sometimes, just like her best friend Beth Ann talks "on and on" about her latest boyfriend. I would hope thirteen-year-old Mary Lou just got caught up in the journal writing and didn't really intend to turn all this in to her teachers.
Author Sharon Creech says the inspiration for the book came when she was living in England and missing her family. Just like Mary Lou, she actually has three younger brothers named Dennis, Doug, and Tom, but the book characters' behavior is fictional, just like those of her parents, older sister, and cousin (the latter two not named Maggie and Carl Ray in real life). Creech "did have a cousin who came to live with us when I was Mary Lou’s age, and he was quite like the character Carl Ray is," and "Mary Lou gives her address in this book as 4059 Buxton Road—and that was my real address," although it was in South Euclid, Ohio, and not the fictional Easton of the book.
While some of the plot isn't too plausible (especially Carl Ray's story), the portrayal of family life at the unnamed time is. I think there's a bit of timelessness in the setting of this novel that makes it appealing even today, 25 years after it was written, and nearly 60 years after the author was Mary Lou's age. For me, the only real clue it's not set in the present is the many references to telephones that are *not* cells (or smart) - the kids call each other and don't text.
The book addresses some serious issues - death (the next door neighbor, who is not elderly) and poverty (Mary Lou travels with Carl Ray back to his home in Appalachia - no electricity, no flushing toilet).
Besides the summer journal to keep, Mary Lou also has a summer reading list. She picks out a book of poems by Robert Frost and the Odyssey to read, and makes comments and writes notes about them in this book as well. Her commentary is quite amusing.
Probably the funniest part of the book for me was the stretch in the journal where Mary Lou's mother tells her to stop saying "God," "stupid," and "stuff" so much, and to expand her vocabulary. So Mary Lou uses a thesaurus to find synonyms and starts using those instead, even in her journal. The results are hilarious (from page 139):
Not much elixir happened today. Alex had to work all day, so I stayed home, watched Tommy, read some more Odyssey, and quintessence.
Mrs. Furtz came over again, all crying and nub, about some cabbageheaded letter she got....I do feel sorry for her and all, I really do, but Omnipotent!
Actress Kate Forbes does a fine job narrating the audiobook - she makes a perfect Mary Lou for the first person diary entries. The audiobook has the cover illustration pictured at the beginning of this post, which I prefer (with its flying pages and pages of journal-writing). The second illustration (just above) is from the print book cover, and it's not clear to me if the boy pictured sitting next to (the girl I assume is) Mary Lou on the front step is her cousin Carl Ray, or her boyfriend Alex.
© Amanda Pape - 2015
[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to the Hood County Library and my university library respectively.]