The Plot: Tamara Ann Simpson should be having a great time because it is summer. It's 1969, and for a ten year old in a Long Island suburb, summer is the ice cream man and kickball games, mothers who stay home while fathers take the train into the city. It's a neighborhood where the neighborhood kids get together and play all day long.
Except. Things aren't so perfect. Her best friend, Kebsie, has moved away; and Muscle Man McGinty (totally annoying and totally a liar) has moved in. Her father Marshall doesn't do much other than go into work and argue with her brother, Tim. Tim, in college, stays away, having been told to "cut your hair" one too many times. Shirley, her mother, watches soap operas and heats up TV dinners.
Tamara thinks she has the answer. Expose Muscle Man as the liar he is. I mean, really? How can people believe all his whoppers, like his uncle is the astronaut Neil Armstrong? Then one day Muscle Man goes to far, saying he can beat the entire neighborhood at kickball. Kickball; Tamara's sport. A game the kids take very seriously. Muscle Man is going down....
The Good: Neil Armstrong begins and for just a moment, you think, this is going to be an old fashioned type of book, set in a nicer, calmer time. Before working parents and structured playdates. Oh, a sweeter and gentler time, when a sad day was when your best friend moved away.
And in a way, Neil Armstrong is that. Those parents who want that type of book will be satisfied with the old-school tone.
But Neil Armstrong is so much more than just an old fashioned read about friendship among ten year olds.
First, the casual mention of Kebsie being a foster child who has now moved back to live with her mother. Suddenly, the story shifts; a hint that the past was not so perfect. Kebsie was the foster child on the street; and Muscle Man and his older brother are the two new foster children. Tamara, our narrator, never over explains -- never explains beyond how a ten year old would see the world -- but suddenly we know, we know why the neighborhood indulges Muscle Man's lies.
Second, the casual dysfunction of the Simpsons, never explained. Mom just likes to sit and watch TV all day long, cooking or cleaning only when son Tim comes home from college. Beautifully, Mom isn't given any lost career dreams; she doesn't fit in with the other Betty Draper-era wives but she also doesn't talk about any other wishes or desires than escape through watching her stories.
Third, this story can be read differently at different ages. The adult reader sees the despair of the Simpsons life; the younger reader will just know that Mrs. Simpson isn't like the next-door neighbor who makes delicious foods, sews her children darling clothing, makes sure her girls look picture-perfect, buys them Barbie dolls. The child reader goes along with Tamara and her loss of a friend, her dislike of the prissy neighbor girl. The adult knows Tammy is jealous of the girl with the "better" mother. Book discussions may bring out some of the depth to younger readers; and more mature young readers will discover the layers on their own, and be rewarded by that richer reading experience.
Fourth, the great use of time. Readers of this blog know that when I read historical fiction, especially fiction set during the author's own childhood, I ask, why this time? Why not set this in the present? Setting this book in 1969 does show us a more innocent time -- but with serious undertones. Marino uses the war in Vietnam; now, it would be our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. So while this is "history," its also the present for some children. The moon-landing gave those in 1969 a moment to come together, a chance to dream, hope. And, sadly, I cannot see a similar modern moment to give the child Tamara what she needs to move forward with her life.
Lastly, but most important, Tamara's anger. I stand up and applaud you, Nan Marino. Rarely have I read a child so angry -- and a girl child, no less. Her anger and rage is so pure and so complex that Tamara doesn't even know she is angry. Oh, she misses Kebsie; she dislikes Muscle Man; she's not satisfied with her mother. And the child reader will go along with all of that, and feel sympathy and empathy with Tamara, rooting for her. When Tamara plays kickball, her passion fuels the game, and we know why this means so much to Tamara. It's not just the game; not just beating Muscle Man; it's a legitimate outlet for the depths of emotion a ten year old feels, emotions with no other outlet. As Tamara finally makes peace with the loss of her friend and allows herself to make friends with Muscle Man, so to does the child reader.
Meanwhile the adult reader sees that what is happening is Tamara is one angry child, rightfully so. The neglect by her parents -- a neglect that the rest of the neighborhood can see, we realize, but Tamara doesn't quite realize. Oh, she knows her mother doesn't bring cookies to bakeouts and lets the grass go to dandelion seed, but she doesn't quite realize the extent to which the neighbors view her. We, who have "that family" on the block? Or have been "that family"? get it.
Tamara is a prickly child; not the nicest child on the block, or the kindest, or the prettiest. The child reading this may not pick up on the fact that Tamara is "that" child; they will go with the roller coaster of emotions Tamara faces, agreeing with her about injustices, going along with Tamara's ride and so maturing as Tamara does, when Tamara reaches the stage of seeing someone and something outside herself. Part of this is just Tamara being ten; part of it is that it looks like Tamara hasn't had much role-modeling in her own household.
Kebsie, the foster child, may or may not have been Tamara's best friend; it's hard to tell, from Tamara's narrative. Tamara, ten, sees things how she wants to. One thing is clear; Kebsie, abused foster child, was also angry but voiced her anger and Tamara was clearly attracted to that, to Kebsie's willingness to literally howl at the moon. Tamara is angry at the loss of her friendship with Kebsie; but she has also gained. Kebsie has shown her it's OK to be angry, even though Tamara doesn't realize that is the true gift Kebsie has given her.
Girls are supposed to be nice and pretty; even their anger, today, is frowned upon. Tamara is glorious in her anger, misdirected though it may be at Muscle Man, a child who is equally hurting but instead of pushing the world away and hating it, looks to be loved and thinks he can achieve that love by telling a lie or two or three. Part of the sweetness of this book is how the neighborhood realizes what Muscle Man is doing and accepts it. It is only Tamara, hurting herself and angry at the world, who cannot see beyond herself and see Muscle Man for who he is.
I hope I haven't scared you away. Let me say, that the writing, the portrayal of setting and the character of Tamara, make Neil Armstrong a title that should make everyone's short list predictions for Newbery. And it's because of that -- the way Marino portrays Tamara, who may I say is a little bitch and that is a compliment -- that I gave that much room to Tamara's emotions. Tamara is the neighbor girl with the mismatched clothes and the hair that makes you think "doesn't her mother ever brush it." But the child reader won't know this, only think "poor Tamara, who has lost her friend."
For the children readers? This is a great read. Ignore the above, which is for the adult reader. For your kids? Tell them this is a perfect summer story, with ice cream cones and kickball games and cookouts. Sometimes its sad, because Tammy's best friend has moved away and a new yucky boy has moved in, and only Tammy sees through his lies. Tell them how Tammy keeps trying to be fair, but the others aren't, and don't you hate it when people think the rules don't apply to everyone? Tell them about the annoying next door neighbor girl who boasts about her thirteen Barbie dolls. Tell them how the kids get together and have their own justice system for when someone does something wrong. Ask them, "have you ever just wanted to howl at the moon? Tammy's the type of girl who does that."
I listened to this on audio; Bauer does a great job of capturing Tamara's indignation, at her shock, at her joy, at her disappointment.
I have a semi-connection to the author. I've only met her once or twice; but she works at the library system I used to work at, so is basically "friend of friend." All this means is that when I read it, I began thinking "please don't let this suck, because that would be awk.ward." First I felt relief when I realized this was good; then it was excitement when I realized I was listening to an incredibly well written and crafted story; and then it was awe at the creation of Tamara.
Check out Fuse #8's review for her review and also for all the links about the book and Marino.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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