Lucky for Good by Susan Patron is the last in a series of books begun by Patron in her 2007 Newbery Award-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky, a book I’ve never read. After reading Lucky for Good, however, I can unequivocally say that the Newbery was well-deserved. Patron writes a book about an ordinary girl in an ordinary community (well, sort-of) but she writes it with finesse and polish, so much so that the book stands out head-and-shoulders from the middle grade fiction crowd.
(Warning: the review ahead may contain spoilers.)
Lucky Trimble is an eleven year old girl who has been through some rough times but whose life is turning out okay. She lives with her adoptive mother, Brigitte, who was married to and divorced from Lucky’s father before Lucky was born. Brigitte is French and is an accomplished chef, and her little cafe has brought a little bit of refined cuisine, not to mention community, to their desert town of Hard Pan. Trouble is on the horizon for Brigitte’s cafe, though, thanks to the county health inspector. It seems that a restaurant cannot operate out of a personal dwelling (Brigitte and Lucky live in the trailers that surround the cafe, which is actually located outside–the cooking is done inside). Of course, the citizens of Hard Pan will step up to the plate and help Brigitte out; there’s never really a question about that. However, lots of little side stories, conflicts and resolutions, happen around the main story of the cafe. There’s the situation with the health inspector’s surly nephew, Ollie, and his distaste for Lucky and all of Hard Pan. Lucky and Ollie have a run-in at the schoolbus stop which lands them both in the principal’s office and nets them both a family tree assignment for punishment that will reveal some things to Lucky about her family and families in general. There’s also the story of Miles Prender, six year old genius and friend of Lucky, whose absentee mother suddenly shows back up in Hard Pan. There’s even a bit of romance (including a first kiss) between Lucky and her best friend, Lincoln, which is handled with a very light touch. Over all it’s a story about family and being at peace with one’s lot in life, which are certainly very positive things, and as I mentioned before, the writing is just about perfect. The book that comes to mind as closest in theme, tone, and characterization is Because of Winn Dixie, with its winsome protagonist, strong sense of place and community, and subtle reference to big, grown-up, life-altering problems.
It’s the big, grown-up, life-altering problems, which play a bigger role in the Hard Pan trilogy, that give some people pause. When I started reading this book, I had no idea that The Higher Power of Lucky had been subject of some controversy. As I mentioned before, I haven’t read this one, so I can only report what I’ve read online: that some objected to Patron’s use of the word scrotum in the book, as well as Lucky’s knowledge of twelve-step programs. (For more on this, read Patron’s response to the controversy in Publisher’s Weekly and watch Kirby Larson’s virtual read-out of the controversial excerpt for Banned Boooks Week.) I’ve actually been on a quest to read as many Newbery Award and honor books as I can, but I’ve avoided The Higher Power of Lucky for just the issue that I’m about to address here in my review of Lucky for Good: I just don’t enjoy reading books that muddy religious/spiritual waters very much, and I figured with the words Higher Power in the title, that had to be the case. I was right, if Lucky for Good is any indication, as I believe it is. The issue is brought to a point by the return of Miles Prender’s mother, Justine, an ex-drug addict who found Jesus in prison and comes back to Hard Pan to take back over the parenting reins that her mother has held for much of Miles’ life. Miles’ mom is strict in ways that his grandmother never was, with the most important (and stressful for Miles) being that she will not allow him to read about dinosaurs or evolution, two things that fascinate him. He learns to mimic the religious statements she makes, but he doesn’t seem happy about them. He and Lucky discuss these problems and issues, including a discussion of whether or not Charles Darwin (who happens to be Lucky’s hero) could possibly be in heaven and whether Lucky herself is bound for heaven or hell. However, instead of lapsing into conservative Christian bashing (which is the direction I honestly thought the book was going), Justine comes off well in the book–a part of the Hard Pan community whose beliefs might not exactly jive with Lucky’s, but someone who loves her son very much and who might just need a little bit of grace since she’s new to this parenting gig. Here’s how Lucky sums Justine up:
She had her own definite ideas about things, and she knew what she wanted, and she didn’t care one bit about what anybody thought. (195)
And so Hard Pan is a place where everybody can just get along.
Lucky’s higher power is the “god of our many understandings,” a phrase she picked up in the 12-step meetings she used to eavesdrop on. It’s certainly not a Christian message, but I think it raises some issues that children and young adults grapple with while coming to grips with what they believe. Lucky for Good asks some big questions, but it doesn’t really provide any answers. Of course, that’s not the point of the book, anyway. I do think it’s a good one–not one that I’d hand to my middle grader (if I had one) without any dialogue, but as a conversation starter. Christian parents will want to read this one with their children, but in the pluralistic society in which we live, this one might give discerning readers a vehicle for conversation. (Atheneum, 2011)
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This book is a nominee in the middle grade fiction category for this year’s Cybils.