Before I won an ARC of See You at Harry’s (Candlewick, 2012) at a writing retreat last spring, I had never read a book by Jo Knowles. Knowles is known for her fearless YA novels that deal with abuse (Lessons from a Dead Girl), teen pregnancy (Jumping Off Swings), and alcoholic mothers (Pearl), among other themes. You aren’t going to plow through one of her books without some previously unknown heartstring getting strummed—and resonating for a long time—according to reviews. But as an elementary school librarian, I mostly read middle grade material. Still, I’d heard Jo present to crowds of writers, and met her, too. In person, she struck me as someone preternaturally attuned to the hum of human nature. I wanted to know how that translated into her work.
And now I know.
See You at Harry’s squeaks into the upper reaches of the middle grade category by virtue of its 12-year-old narrator, Fern. It’s a novel that has one of those oh-my-God-I-didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists that is impossible for me to discuss without ruining your reading experience—and I do want you to read it. So, I’ll just say we spend the first half of the book immersed in Fern’s adolescent life. She is the third of four children to aging Deadhead parents who run a family restaurant/ice cream parlor in small town Vermont. In many ways Fern’s is the typical modern American family—busy, loving, and benignly dysfunctional. Knowles’ strength is in creating a family life so real, the characters popping off the page, it’s like she can write in 3-D.
Named after the girl who saves the pig in Charlotte’s Web, this Fern is perfectly twelve– in turns self-doubting and wise beyond her years. Her developing sense of ethics provides her with an unflinching eye for her parents’ foibles, exposing tensions that, when struck by unspeakable tragedy, explode and take the rest of the book to reconcile. If her namesake is the character that cares in an uncaring world, Knowles’ Fern is the character that cares in a world that forgets to notice. From the first page, her longing for her mother’s attention is achingly clear. She describes the best day of her life as the day she lay sick in bed at age eight, when her mother stayed to comfort her all day. “I closed my eyes and tried to remember that feeling, because somehow, even then, I had a hunch that I might not feel it again.” Strummm. But Fern is funny and resilient, busy discovering how it feels to have a blossoming crush on her childhood friend, Ran. Besides, her siblings offer much distraction and frustration.
Sara is the oldest of Fern’s siblings, taking a year off before college to work at the restaurant and save money. She’s blunt and bossy and unhappy to be home, isolated from peers. Sara makes due by playing kissy-face with a co-worker, leaving more duties to Fern.
Holden, Fern’s brother and closest ally, is coming to terms with his sexuality. Fern is fiercely protective of her brother, defending him in the face of lunkhead townies. She tenderly comforts him in this exchange: Holden says, “So you don’t care. That I’m… you know.” To which Fern replies, “Why would I care? Why would anyone?” I love this model of not just tolerance and acceptance, but of affirmation. Holden is courageous in his own right, refusing to play the victim or hide, even when his father’s reception to his orientation is questionable. Knowles manages to keep this from being the driving issue of the book, but rather, treats it as an issue in the book, a feat for which Harry’s has deservedly received critical praise.
And then there is Charlie, age three, a blur of happy songs and sticky fingers, and Fern’s responsibility much too much of the time. Fern grudgingly admits to loving Charlie, but he is most often annoying her. As a writer, I am in awe of how fully realized a character Knowles creates in Charlie. He is only three, yet absolutely true to life with his ever-present naked plastic doll (stolen from Fern’s old toys) and frequent nose picking. He puts a smile on everyone’s face (readers included), and Dad isn’t afraid to use Charlie for marketing purposes, which drives Fern crazy. Mom is forever charmed by Charlie, oblivious to the way she overlooks Fern in his presence.
Meanwhile, Fern’s mother deals with the stresses of the restaurant—and her husband’s shameless striving for success– by disappearing to meditate, a constant source of eye rolls from Fern.
Here’s the thing. I care so much about Fern, want her so desperately to be noticed by her mother, that when the plot takes its dark turn, I am hooked and hooked deep. I feel for Fern and her mom. Juggling the needs of children, husband, and work is a challenge to most mothers. Many of us fear that we’re neglecting something along the way. Heaven forbid it’s our children. Even hapless George, Fern’s father, is driven by a desire to provide for his family. But the best intentions are lost on our children—and theirs– unless we consciously, mindfully, spend our limited energies focused on what really matters.
In the end, this seems to be Knowles’ point. Had the tragedy not struck, Fern’s family members may never have slowed down long enough to notice what they were neglecting. See You at Harry’s is a novel that urges readers, through Fern’s evolving perspective, to appreciate the here and now, nurture friendships, and just to care.
Cameron K. Rosenblum is a writer, teacher, blogger, middle grade book club leader on a personal mission to turn every kid she meets into a book lover. You can find her online at http://cameronkellyrosenblum.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter as @ckellyrose.