4 out of 5 Important Stars
I was so excited for this – right from the blurb. I don’t read much middle grade, and I am more of a spec fic reader – but this had another thing I love in a book – it centers around art. Though it didn’t really play out in the art department (haha funny pun) as far as I wanted, it still centered around a real life artist and his masterpiece. Let me ‘splain… no. No time. Let me sum up.
Arthur Owens lost his father, and when his mother goes on a clearing binge, he loses all his father’s things. At the time, he wasn’t sure why he did it, but when he saw the Junk Man wandering around wearing his father’s hat, he picked up a brick and threw it at him. Luckily, the Junk Man bent over at just that moment, so rather than smashing in his head, the brick only broke his arm. However, the Junk Man is more than he seems to be. He convinces the judge to let Arthur do community service, working for him.
The Junk Man is actually James Hampton. This is where fiction and reality blend. James Hampton was a real person, and like his fictional counterpart, he was also at work on a masterpiece. Unlike most, this one wasn’t put together with paint, canvas, or even stone or marble. James was creating his from the 7 most important things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. After Hampton’s death, the creation was discovered and there was a lot of drama in trying to save it. Hampton was quite an eccentric, and the project was called The Throne of the Third Heaven. Hampton referred to himself as Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity. He was trying to build something he’d seen in a vision. Check out the images online. It’s incredible. In reality, James worked alone, but in this fictional story, and with James hampered by the broken arm, Arthur is put to work gathering the 7 most important things Hampton needs for his work. But to Arthur, it’s just a bunch of junk.
The tone of this was very heavy, but it’s a heavy storyline. Arthur is devastated over the loss of his father. As the events unfold, he’s having to look at his memories of his dad and has to face that everything wasn’t rosy all the time. Tom Owens was a bit of a delinquent when he was alive, and now everyone is painting Arthur with the same brush. First, the judge uses the ol’ apple metaphor (they don’t fall far from their trees) and his school is acting like Arthur’s going to go nuclear and kill everyone in it at any minute. His mother is having trouble with work and his little sister is begging him not to be a bad kid. But it all built up and just drew you right into the story. I think a novel about a boy whose lost his father and is facing the threat of going off the rails deserves a somber tone. What got me was the sense of injustice. Arthur wasn’t a bad kid. And didn’t his school know what kind of kid he was from previous interactions? His probation officer is one of those zero tolerance adults who make things more difficult for children than they have to. It just felt so unfair.
Then there is a social setting. James Hampton is a black man, and this is set in the 60’s, during the civil rights movement. The judge asks Arthur if the act was racially motivated, and he is both terrified and confused by this. He knows racially motivated crimes are wrong, and he’s afraid that that is what everyone will focus on. But it was all about the hat. I would not have minded at all if race and the riots had come into this, I might have liked it, but that wasn’t the story this author was telling.
Luckily, it doesn’t stay all gloom and doom throughout. First, we come across Squeak, with the real name, that’s not much better, of Reginald. Arthur has been put “on notice” by the Vice Principal – a real gem of a human /end sarcasm / and told if he puts one toe out of line he’ll be expelled. Well, Squeak had a run-in with some jocks who had stuffed him in a trashcan, and in a rage, Arthur came to his rescue. Sometimes, boys who play sports in junior high can be the epitome of evil, and school administrator’s who don’t listen to children are even worse. The VP assumes it’s all on Arthur, not the innocent little jocks. Well, whether Arthur likes it or not, he’s earned a friend. Squeak’s one of those plucky nerds, who despite bullies lobbing him with hot dogs, violin lessons and being dumped in a trashcan, he doesn’t back down. There’s an amazing scene in the school cafeteria that I won’t spoil for you – but I loved it. He’s one of the few people who doesn’t avoid Arthur after what happens, and even wants to get in on the 7 most important things. There is also Arthur’s growing relationship with Hampton. As he searches for these weird items and deals with the repercussions of his actions, he goes through a lot of discoveries. Lots of things pop up to make life more, shall we say, interesting or sad or difficult – you know, like life is for everyone, and the 7 most important things reflect these things. I don’t want to spoil it… but it’s cool how they overlap.
I recommend this for anybody that enjoys coming of age stories. I wanted it to be about the joy and importance of creating art – but art didn’t come into it that much. It was more of a chore for Arthur and the story was really about his relationship with Hampton and getting over his father’s death. That would be my only criticism, and it’s a very personal thing, it’s not something I hold against the story. It was still really meaningful, perfect for the age it’s written for, and still appealing to adults.