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. Volume VIII Number 3 . . . . October 5, 2001
Eleven-year-old Sam lives in a rundown apartment building with his mother who struggles to make ends meet. Sam instinctively senses notes, melodies, and rhythms in all he observes, hears, and imagines. Untrained and unaware of formal musical knowledge, he cannot recognize or articulate his innate musical ability. At the start of a new school year, he is drawn to Helen, a belligerent and socially awkward girl who incessantly reads a book about Beethoven. The reader discovers that Helen, whose widowed father is a musical conductor, holds imaginary conversations with Beethoven and is a gifted but headstrong pianist.
Helen and Sam are sitting targets for the class bully, Pete. Following a playground bullying incident, Sam overhears Helen passionately playing the piano at school, and suddenly he realizes that his inner sense for sound has meaning and could have expression. Because his mother cannot pay for lessons and disparages musical study, Sam makes a deal with Helen: he will ensure that the bullying stops in exchange for her teaching him to play the piano. Sam keeps the arrangement secret, practicing in a ravine, soundlessly, on an old board coloured to represent piano keys. Despite these conditions, his progress is rapid, and the friendship between Sam and Helen slowly blossoms. Within weeks, Helen decides that he is ready to perform at the school talent show. Then a confrontation with Pete, who is discovered destroying Sam's hideout and "piano" in the ravine, leads to an accident for Helen. Sam fears that his lessons will be revealed and his friendship with Helen lost. He creates a gift for Helen, a "basket of Beethoven," which expresses his musical understanding and Helen's role in this awakening. To Sam's delight, his mother accepts his ability and plans to buy him a keyboard, and Helen will make a full recovery. With Helen's last-minute support, Sam is able to perform at the talent show.
The childhood and adolescent experiences of poverty, single parenthood, bullies, and developing friendships are addressed only superficially, and the supporting characters and storylines remain undeveloped. However, the major focus and strength of this novel are the illumination of the nature of musical sense, and its discovery and development despite adversity. Writing in the third person from the perspective of Sam and occasionally Helen, the author, herself an accomplished musician, skillfully reveals how Sam and Helen feel about sound and music. This ongoing description will be most meaningful to those readers who share this gift. A short biographical note about Beethoven is included. While unlikely to appeal to younger readers, the information places in context Sam's experience of "hearing" music in his head. This novel will be most appealing to those who are musically-inclined, possibly with a more extended age range of interest than that which is suggested for a more general audience.
Sheila Alexander is a Middle Years Teacher Candidate in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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