Neville (1964 Winner) – This one is one of my absolute favorites. I think it is tone perfect and captures that wonderful/ delicious/ horrific/ awkwardness of adolescence. This is the 1964 winner so there is a lot of quiet rebellion without the full bore revolution of the later 60s. The narrator pushes back against the rules around him but he never really breaks any of them. It’s set against a background of middle class New York in the Sixties and the setting and extended cast of characters are so subtilly yet so vibrantly limned out that it reminds me of a watercolor.
For all that there is no dreaminess to this narrative. It is a clear cut story of a boy trying to make his way in the great big world with New York City as his local town. He talks about going over to Brooklyn and crossing the Staten Island Bridge, he sneaks his bike onto the beltway to meet up with a friend and makes calculations of his pocket change with bus fare in mind. He meets a girl and he is clumsy and charming and an idiot but never malicious or mean. Mary’s mom is a beatnik and it is hilarious to see the depiction of the alternate household of pre hippie Coney Island. Of course he also adopts a cat who is partly our surrogate and partly the walking incarnation of Dave Mitchell’s transition into adulthood.
It’s easy to make a comparison to good old bad old Holden Caulfield. Both are rebellious children of New York City, both are adolescent men. Granted Holden is older and much darker but they are only two years apart. Both stories are told in the first person and both of them are pushing back against the world that surrounds them. Davey is just so much nicer and kinder and less jaded. His parents are middle class and would never send him away to a boarding school when there is a perfectly good PS around the corner. He’s younger than Holden, sure, but he seems much more mature in a lot of ways and frankly the writing while less literary certainly is a far sight easier to take (and this from a Salinger fan from way back).
While this is one of my all time favorite Newbery winners it has the title that I like the least. I get the conceit that the cat is his outside audience for his inmost thoughts. I understand that Cat is his first foray into adulthood and the perils and hazards of responsibility that come with it. I get that Cat sums up that note of quiet rebellion that is the period tone undertone of the book. Cats are independent and go their own way, not like all those unnamed Dogs to duty of Newberys past. I get that in so many ways it is a perfect title for the book and that its very awkwardness is part of the appeal, part of what makes it unique and interesting. I guess I just think it is a clunker, I don’t like how it scans, and I feel like it is a phrase not a concept. I suppose I am the one trying to make the title, like the protagonist, fit into a box.
Dave’s relationship with his father is one of the main themes of this book and is also emblematic of the theme of gentle rebellion that marks the book and puts it in the context of being forethinking in the mid sixties. It was a time of great change in America and that change was only picking up speed. The conflict between a demanding and strict yet ultimately deeply loving father and his son who’s gentle forays into independence are adventures fraught with stumbles is a classic conflict that Neville manages to make compelling and, again, uniquely subtle. Over the course of the book the two find deeper wells of respect for each other and in the process find their conflicts happening less and ending up with better results in the end.
It reminds me of a special few years I had with my dad whom I miss a great deal. Reading this book I think again how I knew everything there was to know in the world when I was 14 and how my Pops could always show me where maybe I was missing the bigger story. That there were people tied to those facts that I was so interested in and feelings that drove those people to take those actions that made those facts. There’s a lot of that in this book too. People do unusual things and turn up in unusual places and while it would be easy to call them “College Dropout” or “Crazy Cat Lady” or “Some Girl from Coney Island” that there is a lot more to everyone than you really might expect, even a lot more to a stray cat that you bring home partially to piss off your dad.
I got a lot of gifts from my pops, a great set of hair, a strong public speaking voice, but the greatest gift he gave me was empathy and he taught me a lot of lessons in that course when I was about the same age as Dave Mitchell. This book is all about empathy which is perhaps why I find it such a gem. It is, for me, a luminous pearl, a work with a quiet cool radiance. Nothing too flashy not much to grab your attention, just a steady pure light and the faint reflection of yourself upon its surface.
NB be sure to get an edition with the illustrations by Emil Weiss some of which are shown here. They are lovely and add nicely to the story.