Seventh-grader Octavia is being raised (and public schooled) in small-town Vermont by her mother, Ray, and her father, Boone. Ray is a lawyer and the family's breadwinner, while Boone spends many hours in a shed in the backyard completing what he claims will be a great work of art. Octavia calls her parents by their first names. She is a smart, happy kid with Big Questions -- including Does God exist? Then Ray -- who Octavia tells us has been a lifelong seeker -- joins the Fellowship of the Redeemer, a small fundamentalist Christian church in a nearby town.
Both Octavia and her father are a bit nonplussed by this, but they believe it will pass. Ray compels Octavia to participate in youth activities with the Redeemers, and Octavia chafes under the restrictions against Halloween or exposing her naked knees, and seeing her future as some man's helpmeet. When Ray leaves her family, a small custody battle ensues; but since Boone has hardly been the model of a family provider, Octavia ends up living with her mother and two other Redeemers in a small apartment and attending the Redeemer's school. She has a mini-breakdown and is allowed to return to public school where she chooses a science-fair project: She sprouts a number of bean plants under controlled conditions. She will pray over half the plants to see if asking for intervention from a higher power makes a difference in their growth. With her youthful logic, Octavia believes that if her mother sees that prayer makes no difference, she will leave the Redeemers and return to her family.
I enjoyed this short little book, mostly for Octavia's spunky personality. Despite her parents self-absorption, they clearly raised a smart, thoughtful kid. Parts of her character seemed a little young for a 7th grader, yet at the same time she exhibited that combo of knowledge and innocence that is so shocking in middle schoolers. I thought the anti-fundamentalist message was a bit heavy-handed (and I don't mind an anti-fundamentalist message), but I liked that not all of her Redeemer classmates were mindless offspring of nutjobs and that Octavia learned something from them.
Ellen Grafton reads the novel. She brings an authentically youthful voice -- including a slight lispiness -- to her narration and sets the right tone for Octavia's spunkiness. She doesn't voice the novel, but it's short and simple enough that tracking the dialog isn't an issue. Inevitably, I must compare this reading with the only other time I've listened to her (link if you dare!), but I've got to say that not only was this an improvement literature-wise, but Grafton does a much better job of keeping the life in the story. We audiobook listeners often say that a great reader can make lemonade out of literary lemons, but I wonder how often a narrator just cannot do anything for a poor piece of writing.
I was listening to this at the same time I was listening to Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher. The theme of religious fundamentalism is common to both books, but what a difference the "j" makes! I'm not quite done with this one ... I was listening on a road trip, but we didn't finish while on the road, so the driver took the copy!!
[The image was the only one I found when I searched Wikimedia Commons for "big questions." It is a photograph from "
Octavia Boone's Big Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything by Rebecca Rupp
Narrated by Ellen Grafton
Brilliance Audio, 2010. 3:22