Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Pages: 288

Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone

Summary: Lucky Linderman didn't ask for his life. He didn't ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn't ask for a father who never got over it. He didn't ask for a mother who keeps pretending their dysfunctional family is fine. And he didn't ask to be the target of Nader McMillan's relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.
But Lucky has a secret--one that helps him wade through the daily mundane torture of his life. In his dreams, Lucky escapes to the war-ridden jungles of Laos--the prison his grandfather couldn't escape--where Lucky can be a real man, an adventurer, and a hero. It's dangerous and wild, and it's a place where his life just might be worth living. But how long can Lucky keep hiding in his dreams before reality forces its way inside?
Michael L. Printz Honor recipient A.S. King's smart, funny and boldly original writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you and taking a stand against it.

I read Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King simply because I liked her first novel, The Dust of 100 Dogs. I wasn't 100% thrilled with that novel, but overall I came down on the side of liking it (mostly). The cover got me immediately--the color scheme sticks to the simple, striking combination of black, white, and red. So really, it may have been the fact that I liked the cover that really pushed me to read this one. Originally, I wasn't so sure that I was going to be into this book. For some reason I have a mental block on all things Vietnam War-related (exempting Across the Universe, because that movie features Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, and the music of the Beatles), so I was slightly hesitant when I saw that part of the book would be taking place during a dream version of the War. Plus, magical realism isn't always my thing. I've read two other magical realism works, neither of which was a young adult book. Still, I was curious about how a young adult author would handle magical realism.
Lucky Linderman, the protagonist of the novel, is under the impression that he has a crap life. I wouldn't really want to be in his shoes, considering his family problems, his lack of self-confidence, and the attentions of a sociopathic bully named Nader. Usually Lucky deals with this by escaping in his dreams, in which he is attempting to rescue his grandfather who went MIA during the Vietnam War. But are they really dreams? Lucky always wakes up holding an item from the dream. However, that's not the most important thing. In his dreams, Lucky is able to feel confident in his abilities and his manhood. When Nader does some visible damage, shoving Lucky on the ground for helping out Charlotte Dent and earning Lucky one busted face, Lucky's mother finally takes some action and removes Lucky from the situation for a little while. She takes him to visit her brother, Dave, and his slightly crazy wife. While the trip at first seems like a terrible idea, Lucky quickly connects with his uncle through weight lifting and even meets an older girl to whom he feels a connection. The trip rebuilds him in a way, until he finally lets go of attempting to rescue his grandfather in his dream world.
The voice A.S. King gave Lucky Linderman was brilliant. He was so easy to read, and I immediately wanted things to get better for him. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill story about bullying. Lucky was fairly detached from the times he was bullied, especially one particularly nasty incident. The way he goes about explaining the pain he is going through is far more removed than would be expected. He simply explains what happens and claims that he isn't suicidal over and over. He doesn't often linger on his feelings, instead choosing to move on to a variety of topics.
A.S. King did a good job of demonstrating how important a good familial foundation is for a child that is being bullied. What was almost more damaging than Nader's horrific actions was the inaction of Lucky's parents. His father, never able to get over the fact that his father went missing in action before he could meet him, constantly chose his job and a cooking obsession over interacting with his family. His mother wasn't too much better, burying herself in swimming endless laps to cope with her failing family. His mother does ultimately see that everything is certainly not okay and removes Lucky from the situation. King doesn't make these parents another enemy, just people that made mistakes. It seems that each of the Lindermans is lost in the life they were given.
The thing that I liked most about this book (aside from Lucky's voice, which probably goes on the list of top young adult narrators for me) was the fact that Lucky didn't meet his uncle Dave and Ginny the pretty redhead and automatically become okay with his life. Dave actually becomes an even bigger disappointment than his dad ever was. Rather than have the new people become crutches for Lucky, King has the people in the story help Lucky understand that the world isn't black and white. This understanding, along with the weightlifting and talking to Ginny, gives Lucky enough confidence to stand on once he returns back to his life.
The magical realism aspects did not bother me at all. While I'm not saying I totally understand the whole thing with the ants, Lucky's quest to rescue his grandfather was a good demonstration of Lucky's frustration with his unsatisfactory family and school life. The ants were just amusing some of the time, other times they just seemed like very extreme versions of Lucky's thoughts.
A. S. King's Everybody Sees the Ants is magical realism done right. Lucky Linderman is a thoroughly engaging protagonist that easily brings readers through the real and the magically real. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 - really good.

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