Weekend Pick for March 3, 2023
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No Place Like Home
By James Bird
Dr. Susan Densmore- James
The Book Dealer
“I hope I still have hope. I can’t tell if I do. I’m too tired to remember what hope feels like.”
I read incessantly and gain knowledge while experiencing joy and comfort with nearly ever book I read. But, every once in a while, there is a book that grabs hold of me and won’t let go. The bar was set high when I was handed Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, the first YA book that transformed my life as a teacher and person. Even as I age and struggle with remembering many parts of my life, I can tell the story of who blessed me with this book (the amazing librarian at Rachel Carson Middle School in Virginia) what year it was (2001), the names of the students in my class who read and talked about it with me (too many to even count), and the vast impact it had on all of us.
That was THE year I fell in love with Middle Grades/Young Adult Literature. The librarian (who refused to be called a media specialist) taught me that books are so much more than a necessary part of the English curriculum. Sure, books are the “acquaintances” to important facts. But, books are life’s most important teachers. Books are our best friends. The best of these book friends challenges our thinking while also bringing love, peace, understanding, and often humor to our lives. When I share books through reviews, I make sure those selected contain a little bit of all these elements; they are magic in our hands and hearts.
After the same aforementioned librarian convinced me to discard the idea of a “class novel,” I slowly began to give choice reading in my class (I am NOT the quickest to the draw….it took me 10 years of teaching to realize the power of this decision), and a whole new universe was revealed to me, mostly by the discussions of my students of the stories THEY loved. Because when it comes to teaching, it is not about me. It is about those precious youngsters who truly love to read when given the chance to read what they love.
Over the course of now nearly 25 years, there have been a handful of books in my life that impacted me as much as Crutcher’s. These are the books have help to transform me into a better human, and I look to books to continue to do so, as I often fall short as a citizen of this planet. This week, I read one that will forever be part of my soul: James Bird’s book No Place Like Home. I had the unique experience of silence (which anyone who knows me knows is rare) for several days. It even took me a while to pen this review. I honestly had to make sense of my emotions and the impact of Bird’s 12-year-old narrator, Opin. This book has been constantly in my thoughts, bringing tears of sorrow for our hurting world, but it also springs tears of hope for a better human race. Yes, I am crying right now as I type this review.
Bird masterfully begins his story with a prologue which sets the stage for an emotionally enlightening reading of an authentic view of living life with no home. I use this phrase “life with no home” because after reading this book, I will never view homelessness in the same way by carelessly flinging “homeless” around in a way that it easily gets lost. The prologue connects Bird to his audience, reminding us that life “tests your patience, your courage, your limits, and even tests your heart.” He goes on to remind us that life does not come with a “cheat sheet” or “set of directions.” And even leaves the reader with a glimpse of hope that life often gets better as we learn more about it. I continually leaned on this prologue to remind me that James is sharing this story for his readers to have a true understanding of Opin’s life living in his cramped, red Pinto. Bird speaks his truth in a way that naturally challenges the reader’s thinking on so many critical topics, a courageous task I am sure was not an easy endeavor for this author, emotionally or otherwise.
Throughout the book, the reader rides along with Opin, his mother, and his older brother, Emjay. The family is struggling to get to Los Angelos on literally a hope and a prayer as at least two of them (Opin and his Momma) remain faithful to the wisdom of their Native American ancestors and culture. In fact, mom does quite well teaching Opin Oijbwe culture and so much about the world around them. Emjay, the jaded older brother of the two boys, goes missing for days at a time, making the family’s journey slow and worrisome for their mother. Then, Opin finds a stray dog who needs him as much as he needs her, and his longing for a stable home intensifies, as his brother's seemingly selfish ways make the trip even more trying.
Bird creates a stunning, character-driven novel that is an intimate portrayal of life without a home. The best character-driven novels will reel you in and keep you hooked as you dive deeply into the innermost workings of complex fictional people, and this book is just that: a superbly crafted character driven novel. But unlike many of these types of novels, this novel is not a slow burn. It is not easy to put down. There were many reasons I loved this book, but some of the strongest ones relate to his Mom, who would do anything to protect her boys. Making the decision to leave an abusive husband in hopes of a better life for her children is the bravest act imaginable to me as a single mother. Additionally, no matter if it was my first day of teaching in 1990 or today, this novel will deeply resonate with teachers and students alike. So many are living without homes. Without walking two miles in Opin’s shoes, one can never hear it and attempt to understand it from his perspective. Bird is a master at counterbalancing a traumatic experience with the love, wisdom, faith, and imagination of this family. Their love of music and art reminds us to fully appreciate the beauty in the world. Their gratefulness for the small things in life leads the reader to reflect on the gift of gratitude.
And, no matter the age: middle schooler, teen, or adult, readers will connect with one character quickly but end up loving each for various reasons. Opin’s old-soul attitude and mindset, along with his creativity and goodness, made me fall in love with him. Emjay, although at times quite self-centered, displays a loyalty to his little brother that seems to emerge at just the right time (despite his heroic efforts to NOT care). And the mom. Oh, the mom. She is a force of nature that will stop at nothing to ensure her “babies” are ok. This book is well-worth the wide range of emotions the reader will feel. And truly, I am a better person for taking this journey with this trio.