Monday, December 7, 2009

In search of adventure

Few could resist opening a book with the title The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis (although the cover is kind of blah) and once you have opened it, you will be unable to resist Popeye and Elvis themselves. Author Barbara O'Connor seems to have such a sympathetic eye and a talent for appropriateness in telling the stories of poor families.

Popeye lives with his grandmother, Velma, in a ratty old house in Fayette, South Carolina, depressed at the thought of a summer watching the heart-shaped water stain on his bedroom ceiling grow ever larger. Velma is keeping her brain sharp by regularly reciting the kings and queens of England in chronological order and giving Popeye a weekly vocabulary word. Words just meant to be read aloud, like vicissitude, taciturn, serendipity. Velma's afraid of "cracking up" and so is Popeye. He realizes that Velma is the most stable adult in his life. Popeye's Uncle Dooley -- a layabout with a fondness for beer who still lives with his mother-- accidently shot Popeye in the eye with his BB gun, giving him his nickname.

Then, a Holiday Rambler gets stuck in the mud practically on his doorstep and out pop the six wild Jewell kids. Led by oldest brother Elvis, who recognizes a kindred spirit and immediately names him vice president of the Spit and Swear Club, the Jewells are loud, rambunctious and thrillingly slapdash. Popeye is enchanted. Elvis, however, wants to get away from his younger brothers and sisters -- he calls one of them a "toe-jam tattletale" -- and proposes that the two boys quietly seek their own adventure. Even though he knows that Velma will not approve, Popeye signs up (he couldn't not!). As they explore the woods of Fayette, they spy a Yoo-hoo box transformed into a boat. There's a cryptic note inside. Popeye and Elvis have found their small adventure.

Scott Sowers reads the book with all the energy and rowdy enthusiasm of the Jewell kids. The verbal jousting and physicality of that family are humorously portrayed in his reading. There are many "characters" to work with here: doofus-y Duane, Mrs. Jewell (who writes country music lyrics), the butterfly-winged Princess Starletta (who creates the Yoo-hoo boats), and those Jewell rugrats (Calvin, Prissy, Walter, Willis and Shorty).

I particularly enjoyed Sowers' gruff, yet loving Velma. Every once in awhile, we fade into one of Velma's recitations -- Richard III, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Edward VI -- in her tired, determined voice. Popeye, though, really stands out: He's the quiet observer most of the time and his wry, inner voice as he incorporates Velma's vocabulary words into his story, and his curiosity at discovering a new world outside his ken are sympathetically created by Sowers. Everyone speaks in a Southern twang, that sounds authentic to my ears. These are poor people, yet I never felt that either O'Connor or Sowers was caricaturing them.

At my work, we give a presentation every summer on good recent books for literature circles and we never have enough recommendations for the younger end. I'm looking forward to recommending Popeye and Elvis next year. The complex language vividly describes the rural setting, and then there are the vocabulary words. Perfect for 4th graders!

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