________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 25. . . .March 4th, 2011.


Banjo of Destiny.

Cary Fagan. Illustrated by Selçuk Demirel.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
127 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55498-085-7.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Kim Aippersbach.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Jeremiah’s house was built from floss—dental floss. His parents had made their fortune from a dental-floss dispenser that mounted on the bathroom wall. The dispenser used laser light rays and a miniature computer to measure a person’s mouth and dispense the precise length of floss required. The deluxe model let a person choose a flavor, such as mint, raspberry, chocolate pecan, heavenly hash or banana smoothie.

It was something nobody knew they needed—until the television and billboard and internet advertisements told them they did.

And if you don’t have one in your house yet, well, don’t worry. You will soon.

Jeremiah had absolutely everything he could want. He was a very lucky boy, as his parents reminded him every day. “Not many kids have what you have, Jeremiah,” his father would say. “The most advanced home computer available. A miniature electric Rolls-Royce that you can drive yourself. A tennis court with a robot opponent you can always beat. Do you know how lucky you are?”

“Yes, I do,” Jeremiah said.

He meant it, too. What could a kid like Jeremiah have to complain about?

Absolutely nothing.

Jeremiah is rich and dorky. His self-made parents insist on lessons in etiquette, ballroom dancing and piano, which he hates. One day, Jeremiah hears a banjo and falls in love with the sound. He determines to learn how to play, but his parents refuse to buy him a banjo. So Jeremiah figures out how to make one out of a cookie tin and the wood from a broken chair. Then he teaches himself to play from a DVD. With the encouragement of his friend Luella, he begins playing in front of people, and his skill finally gains him a bit of respect—from his peers, from his parents but most of all from himself.

     This simple story of a boy following his passion is well crafted and entertaining. Jeremiah is an engaging character, resourceful and determined with self-depreciating wit. His best friend is amusingly unpredictable. Jeremiah’s interactions with all the supporting characters are both realistic and hilarious: his chauffeur turns the embarrassment of being chauffeured around into a mutual joke; his shop teacher keeps mistakenly calling him Larry as she helps him build the banjo. Jeremiah’s parents are the most stereotypical characters, but they are poignantly funny with their Hoosendorfer Deluxe piano and imported duck, and their genuine desire to give Jeremiah the best of everything even as they deny him the one thing he really wants.

     In a characteristic scene from the middle of the novel, Jeremiah has just failed miserably playing the piano at the school talent night:

“Don’t worry,” his mother whispered, patting his hand. “We’ll help you get over those nerves. I know just what to do. We’ll hire a sports psychologist.” . . .

“So tell me,” said Dr. Barncastle. “Why do you think you performed so dismally at the talent night?” . . .

“Because I’m a lousy piano player?”

“Perhaps you can think of another reason.”

“Because I don’t want to play the piano?”

“Try again, Jeremiah.” . . . Dr. Barncastle looked as if he had the patience to wait forever if Jeremiah didn’t come up with anything more interesting.

“Okay,” Jeremiah said. “How about the piano reminds me of my mortality? You know, it’s black and shiny—like a coffin! Every time I play I think of death. It freaks me out.”

Dr. Barncastle smiled and nodded. “At last we’re getting somewhere.”

     Fagan’s writing is spare and light-hearted, and his obvious love of banjos and banjo music comes through on every page. It really is possible to build a banjo from a cookie tin, and, in an author’s note. Fagan suggests resources for the reader who wants to try making one.

     Banjo of Destiny will inspire any budding musician, and its story of a boy coming to terms with his inner dork will appeal to all. Unfortunately, the cover does not give a good indication of the amusing story within and is not likely to attract the nine-year-old browser. But otherwise, this sweet, quirky little book hits all the right notes.

Highly Recommended.

Kim Aippersbach is a freelance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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