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the higher power of lucky

26 february 2007

Yet another "sleeper" winner of the Newbery Medal, Susan Patron's Higher Power of Lucky went overnight from unknown to notorious. A gentle, low-key story of a girl who has found herself alone in the world once and fears finding herself alone again, Patron's novel enjoyed about two weeks of quiet honor before it became widely-enough distributed for readers to notice that the word "scrotum" appears on its first page. For those who can get past the first page, it's a nice story, emotionally truthful and anything but shocking.

But of course there are those who just can't get past that first page. Dana Nilsson, a schoolteacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado, writes

I would not be doing my job if I booktalked or recommended this book to young audiences. This book has some great qualities—it shows a girl in an insecure situation wanting stability in her life. The inclusion of genitalia does not add to the story one bit and that is my objection. Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud. There are so many other options that the author could have used instead.
Diane Roback of Publishers Weekly disagrees:
Patron is a librarian and the award was given by the American Library Association. "Both of those things, I think, speak to the fact that Susan wasn't doing this gratuitously," said Roback.
Odd argument, that, as if librarians could never do anything gratuitous. In fact, Janice Harayda notes that the use of the S-word is, in strict plot-and-character terms, quite unnecessary:
it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake.

Or maybe no mistake at all. There is no quicker way to get teachers and librarians to rally around a children's book than to challenge it for narrow-minded reasons. The Higher Power of Lucky is about a resilient kid who values reading, family, her dog, twelve-step programs, and Charles Darwin. It is relentlessly aligned with moderate centrist values. Drawing the ire of Philistines has only reinforced its appeal to the moderate center. For a wide swath of Middle America, anyone who would object to tasteful, anatomically correct language like that of The Higher Power of Lucky is a contemptible Yahoo. Perhaps Susan Patron was making a mistake like a fox.

I like The Higher Power, though, and don't mean to sound cynical about it. The novel has formulaic elements, for sure. It's the old waif-befriended-by-oddballs story. It has washed-out placid child characters similar to those in last year's Medal winner, Criss Cross. It contains the inevitable Newbery hook, the child protagonist who is an addicted reader. (When Lucky packs a survival kit in case she's lost in the desert, the first thing she thinks to include is "a good book that you can read to not be bored" [30]). And, in what I think is becoming a corollary to the "Newbery hook" rule, it features contemporary children who seem absolutely innocent of TV, DVDs, iPods, or video games. In the Mojave Desert of Patron's imagination, you either read or you die.

But there are things to like here. Lucky Trimble herself is considerably more proactive than the last few Newbery heroes. She resourcefully gets a snake out of her guardian Brigitte's clothes-dryer, and manages to survive in the desert for a while, caring for a frightened five-year-old. Lucky is a waif with a mind of her own.

And Matt Phelan's drawings are exceptionally good; appropriately, Phelan shares credit with Patron on the cover and spine of the book, and should get a sliver of her Medal.

And there are odd bursts of energy here and there. I return to the "scrotum" passage because that is becoming, for better or worse, what the novel will be known for. The offending word is overheard by young Lucky as she listens through a chink in a wall to stories told at a twelve-step meeting.

Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum. (1)
We don't learn till much later that Lucky, for all her interest in biology, does not understand what she's overheard. Near the end of the book, Lucky asks Brigitte what a scrotum is. "It is a little sack of the man or the animal which has in it the sperm to make a baby," says Brigitte in her Franco-English idiolect (132). Now, Brigitte has just taken steps to adopt Lucky, who has lived in fear all novel long of her guardian abandoning her (just as her father had, via desertion, and her mother, via death). Brigitte is also, significantly, Lucky's father's ex-wife; the absent presence of that father is a starkly powerful and hitherto distracting element of their relationship. At the book's climactic moment, when Brigitte and Lucky bond as a new, entirely female, family, the power of the human seed is invoked by allusion to seal the deal, as it were. We learn, in a fusion of "gratuitous" language and plot necessities, that parents can make children gratuitously out of sperm & egg, but also by deliberately choosing to make them, by many different means.

Brigitte's next words are "You know if anyone ever hurt you I would rip their heart out" (132) – possibly because, wondering where Lucky has heard the word "scrotum," she fears that the child has been abused in some way. The interjection is excessive, but it is full of the kind of unqualified and unconditional love that is always excessive, and that we might term truly "parental."

This is a true children's book; its representations of sexuality are entirely nascent. But for young Lucky, her relationship with Brigitte is one of sexual emulation without sensuous distraction. Brigitte arrives in the Mojave Desert wearing a stunningly simple red dress (the dress is central to several of Phelan's illustrations, especially the book's cover). Later, Lucky will wear that same dress to run away into the desert, trying to provoke Brigitte into either staying or going for good.

There's gratuitous, and then there's gratuitous. Philistines will object that the word "scrotum" does not appear in the course of a hectoring lesson about why one should not even think about such things before marriage. Moderate voices, like Patron herself defending her word choices, will note that the terms of anatomy are an important part of responsible, pragmatic educating:

There's a direct correlation between fear of naming body parts and kids' interest in finding out about them ... The child who learns the definition of scrotum and other body parts in this way, through reading and talking with responsible adults, is armed with, for one thing, an alternative to finding answers through first-hand experience.
Sure; better good information and polite words than back-alley versions of either. But the scrotum in The Higher Power of Lucky is also tied imaginatively into how an older and younger woman establish permanent bonds across the figure of a displaced Father. It's a subtle theme, and that subtlety will persist long after the shock-horror of a single vocabulary item has evanesced.

Patron, Susan. The Higher Power of Lucky. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. New York: Atheneum, 2006.