CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 7. . . .October 15, 2010.
The McGillicuddy Book of Personal Records.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2010.
219 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
The more it hurt, the faster he ran. His heart became a pair of boxing gloves, pounding the inside of his chest: left-right, left-right – thump, thump. He could even feel the pounding in his temples, like the top of his head was about to blow off. Yep, here it comes. Self-combustion. Lee McGillicuddy up in smoke. POOF! Nothing left but a smoldering heap of cinders. He was waiting for it, expecting it. But it didn’t come.
Instead came the miraculous: Without warning, without explanation...jeez...he started to feel good. Absurdly, ridiculously good. And strong. Strong enough to spin the planet on the tip of his finger like a basketball. And then he did it – the impossible. He maxed his speed, screwed his eyes shut, spread his arms wide, and took a suicidal leap at his ‘wall’ – that rubbery membrane of mediocrity that stood between him and mastery – and instead of rebounding into space...holy crud....HE...BROKE...THROUGH. As Lee stepped onto the track at the university stadium – the same track that thousands of marathoners had stepped onto only yesterday as they took their last steps toward the finish line p he knew he’d broken through.
It was like putting on perfect prescription glasses when you didn’t even know your eyesight was crappy. It was like having a huge plug of wax removed from an ear that you didn’t know had been blocked up for years. The volume was up and everything seemed vibrant and sharp and full of possibility. Lee Sonny Daddy Beanpole McGillicuddy, if only for a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of his life, had entered Mastery.
Lee McGillicuddy is a 13-year-old boy with a couple of unusual pastimes. He loves to set records, not for publicity or fame, but to test himself and his determination. The task may be to dribble a basketball for 12 hours straight, to set up dominoes for a whole city block in order to watch them fall one by one, or to complete a marathon run. When he succeeds, Lee is on top of the world and feels he can accomplish anything. But there are other times when he realizes that other people are talented while he can’t do anything very well; he is, at best, just ordinary. That’s when Lee says “his pilot light fizzles out – ffsst – dead; not even the hint of a flame left.” (p. 106)
Lee’s second interest is collecting quotes from famous people, and he uses these often when he requires encouragement and inspiration. They’re always handy, written on strips of paper and stuck to the wall of his bedroom with masking tape.
When Lee in confronted with a real-life challenge which surpasses any of his self-imposed tests, the physical strength and mental toughness he has learned pay dividends in a way which he never could have believed possible.
Sydor gives readers a strong cast of characters in this young adult novel. Readers see Lee experience both highs and lows as his personality evolves. His neighbour, Rhonda, is an excellent foil. Just a couple of years younger, she fills the role of a sometimes annoying little sister – wanting to tag along, showing up at the most inopportune moments and just generally being a pain. Yet, when Lee needs someone with whom to share and experience events, ‘Ron’ tops the list. The two main characters are surrounded by interesting and caring adults. Lee’s mother provides strength and stability as does Agnes, the next door neighbour and second mother for Lee. Another vital character is Lee’s dog, Santiago, who reflects the ups and downs of his master and is empathetic enough to provide absolute love and support.
Throughout the novel, Sydor treats the book as a film, and so the writing is interspersed with directions such as “Fade to: interior of a boy’s head. Roll camera” or “Cut back to Joe’s bar. Zoom in on Gertrude’s fingers cracking peanuts.” This approach enables the author to present a variety of points of view and allows different scenes to occur simultaneously. Given most teens’ interest in and understanding of the media, it is a technique which works well and will appeal to the intended audience.
The novel contains dozens of quotes taken from Lee’s collection. They frequently appear at the beginnings and ends of chapters as well as within the text. All are relevant to the action and Lee’s state of mind, although young readers may feel some are rather clichéd, and they are perhaps unlikely to recognize such sources as Vince Lombardi or Ralph Waldo Emerson As well, Lee refers frequently to one of his favourite novels, The Old Man and the Sea. This analogy, although apt, may also fail to resonate with young readers. Perhaps it will provide incentive for a few of them to explore the Hemingway classic themselves.
Colleen Sydor presents a novel filled with enthusiasm and inspiration, tempered with both sobering moments and comic relief. The characters and the dialogue ring true, and the various events push readers to an unexpected and exciting conclusion The plot and the characters will appeal to both boys and girls and will perhaps help them to realize that we are all, in our own unique ways, extraordinary.
Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.
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