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olive's ocean

18 july 2014

Olive's Ocean, a 2004 Newbery Honor novel by Kevin Henkes, takes familiar motifs and blends them in offbeat, astringent, satisfying ways.

A 12-year-old protagonist (named Martha Boyle) who's an avid reader and aspiring writer. The sudden accidental death of a classmate. A pre-teen romantic triangle where our heroine may not be falling for the better option. A wise grandmother, a snarky older brother, a cute-as-a-bug baby sister, and two parents distracted by mid-life crises and their infatuation with each other.

As I said, the ingredients may be off the shelf, but the proportions and seasoning are unique and well-handled. As the novel opens, Martha Boyle learns that Olive Barstow, her dead classmate, had left behind a diary entry that expressed admiration for Martha and a desire to know her better. Martha feels bad – she barely knew Olive at all – but she had never treated Olive badly, just neglected to make contact with her, among the dozens of other schoolgirls she has never specially made contact with, either.

Olive's words haunt Martha's conscience during her summer vacation (at the wise grandmother's house by the sea). But the aspiring writer in Martha also recognizes that the poignancy of Olive's situation is excellent material for a story. By fits and starts, Martha incorporates Olive as character in drafts of a novel about her summer experiences. Incorporates, and appropriates. Henkes lets us see that Martha, at age 12, isn't a very good writer yet. She has the sensitivity, but not the empathy, of a writer. She can't reach out and engage others; she merely broadcasts what she herself is feeling. Her fictional Olive gets to do things that Martha would like to do. She doesn't get inside Olive herself, and Martha is no closer to understanding her never-will-be friend than she was while Olive was alive.

I've seen so many novels where ~12-year-old girls are gorgeously accomplished storytellers that it's an immense relief to read one where the young writer seems actually to be twelve years old, instead of functioning as a conduit for an adult voice. Martha is selfish and gauche and at times sentimentally lyrical, but she's twelve and I think a lot of us can remember being the same. And Martha finally does become a good writer, in a very Keatsian way, near the end of the book.

Meanwhile her chief confidante, her grandmother Godbee, is perceptibly 82: a blend of fatigue and alertness, realism and whimsy, patience and impatience. There's some wish-fulfillment in the way Henkes draws Godbee's character. We'd all like to be as sage, and as hip, as this octogenarian. But she's no miracle-worker and she doesn't have existence figured out. She just knows that it's passing. In one of the nicer moments in the novel, the family takes a day trip to a local landmark called "the Knob." Godbee stays in the car. "Enchanting as it is, I've seen it," she explains (179). Prosaically, she's tired that day. But she's neither depressed nor cynical, nor worldly-wise. Her energies only extend so far. It's a touch worth ten of having the old lady get out of the vehicle and say something profound about the view.

Henkes, Kevin. Olive's Ocean. 2003. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.