Monday, May 21, 2018

Book Review: FUZZY MUD by Louis Sachar

First Paragraph(s): Woodridge Academy, a private school in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania, had once been the home of William Heath, after whom the town had been named. Nearly three hundred students now attended school in the four-story, black-and-brown stone building where William Heath had lived from 1891 to 1917, with only his wife and three daughters. 
Tamaya Dhilwaddi’s fifth-grade classroom on the fourth floor had been the youngest daughter’s bedroom. The kindergarten area had once been the stables. 
The lunchroom used to be a grand ballroom, where elegantly dressed couples had sipped champagne and danced to a live orchestra. Crystal chandeliers still hung from the ceiling, but these days the room permanently smelled of stale macaroni and cheese. Two hundred and eighty-nine kids, ages five to fourteen, crammed their mouths with Cheetos, made jokes about boogers, spilled milk, and shrieked for no apparent reason. 
Tamaya didn’t shriek, but she did gasp very quietly as she covered her mouth with her hand.

This is going to be huge week at the blog, Esteemed Reader. We've talked about my love for the writing of Louis Sachar before, of course (if you love middle grade fiction, but you don't love Louis Sachar, you don't love middle grade fiction), but this week Louis Sachar talks back! The author of Holes, Sideways Stories from Westside School, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, and many, many other classic middle grade works, not to mention the winner of a Newberry, a National Book Award, and many many others, the man, the myth, the legend, Louis Sachar will be here to face the 7 Questions on Wednesday.

When you're the man, the myth, and the legend, I imagine you can do just about anything you want within some thin threshold of reason. If. Mr. Sachar wanted to do a middle grade version of The Human Centipede, I'm sure somebody, somewhere would publish it and market it and sell the movie rights. I'd definitely want to read it:)

Fuzzy Mud is not a new version of Westside School or a Holes-ish adventure. This is a separate, new thing. Fans of Sachar will recognize some familiar elements inherent in the voice of the author we love, but one of the things I most admire about Louis Sachar is his diverse body of work. He's done a lot of different types of stories and books and left behind classics in multiple genres. If the returning reader drops any preconceived expectations about the book they're going to read and gives Mr. Sachar the trust he's earned, they're going to find a powerful book that moves the reader in a new way than Sachar has moved us previously.

It could be because I've been obsessing over the works of Kurt Vonnegut the last couple years, but in trying to classify the genre of Fuzzy Mud, I found myself thinking of it as being similar to an essay-ish novel like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Both Vonnegut's and Sachar's novels have characters that interest us and a story that moves us, and yet the focus of both works is more the arguments of the author regarding society. Vonnegut's books opens, "A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees." Fuzzy Mud's leading character is, appropriately, some fuzzy mud:

Her mind barely registered it at first, but the more she gazed at the odd-looking mud, the more it drew her attention. 
The mud was dark and tar-like. Just above the surface, almost as if it were suspended in midair, there was a fuzzy yellowish-brown scum. 
Something else struck her as strange about the fuzzy mud, although it took her a moment to realize what it was. There were no leaves on top of the mud. Leaves had fallen everywhere else. They completely surrounded the mud puddle, right up to its edges, but for some reason, no leaves had landed on top of it.

There are some charming child-aged middle grade characters we'll get to in a moment, but the story of every character in this novel revolves around the fuzzy mud. And somewhere between a third and a half of this book is devoted to the perspective of adult characters. We'll be in the heads of parents and teachers before Sachar finishes, and most notably, we'll read large sections of transcripts from senate hearings:

In February of the following year, three months after Tamaya went back into the woods to search for Chad, the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment held a new set of hearings. These hearings were not secret. By this time the entire world knew about SunRay Farm, Biolene, and the disaster that had occurred in Heath Cliff, Pennsylvania.

These transcripts serve a number of purposes, most chiefly among them is as a vehicle for the exposition our child protagonists have no way of knowing. Through the transcripts, we're going to learn the origins of the fuzzy mud and why it's such an environmental disaster. Sachar also has some assertions he wants to make about the corporate culture and legal loopholes that allow for the creation of the fuzzy mud.

Again, this is a novel about the sort of society that allows for Fuzzy Mud just as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is about the sort of society that allows for income stratification (perhaps it's a mercy Mr. Vonnegut didn't live to see the ongoing collapse of the United States due to trends he was discussing in 1965). To the best of my knowledge, the sort of mud Sachar is discussing is fictional, but it's plausibly imagined enough that I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was real.

Certainly, environmental disasters are real and the factors that create them are very real. To this day, I won't buy BP gas and I'm still furious that everyone involved in their spills hasn't been thrown in jail--but of course, we all know that neither justice nor the law apply to people above a certain income bracket (note the Koch brothers still walking around free and buying up politicians despite the many deaths their political meddling has caused). But let's not go down those dark tracts of discussion about how broken our reality is. Instead, let's focus on Sachar's fictional reality and his brilliance.

Exposition and theme expounding aren't the only use for these sections of the book devoted to transcripts. Sachar also expertly uses them to foreshadow coming events and to masterfully build suspense around the pending fate of our characters:

Thousands of people were infected. Five people had already died—the one found in the woods, and then four more who were infected later. 
Senator Foote: All because of one little girl? 
Dr. Peter Smythe: One week after Tamaya Dhilwaddi went into the woods, more than five hundred people showed signs of the rash, including many of her classmates. But it would be wrong to assume that it was caused by Tamaya. The invading organisms had simply overwhelmed the environment.

That passage probably makes a much greater impact when you know that Tamaya Dhilwaddi is our main protagonist. And what a wonderful protagonist she is. She's thoughtful, she's considerate, and she's caring, all of which are characteristics that are about to get her in a whole bunch of trouble. She's not just innocent, she's actively kind and compassionate, even toward a bully she should hate.

Too bad she's going to be poisoned by the story's real leading character.

But before that, note the expertise with which Sachar uses another character as a means to describe Tamaya's appearance, which is of interest. Note how he simultaneously describes her character, which is of importance:

Summer was the prettiest of Tamaya’s friends, with straw-colored hair and sky-blue eyes. Tamaya figured that was probably the reason the boys were talking to them in the first place. Boys were always acting silly around Summer.
Tamaya had dark eyes and dark hair that hung only halfway down her neck. It used to be a lot longer, but three days before school started, while she was still in Philadelphia with her dad, she made the drastic decision to chop it off. Her dad took her to a very posh hair salon that he probably couldn’t afford. As soon as she got it cut, she was filled with regret, but when she got back to Heath Cliff, her friends all told her how mature and sophisticated she looked.

See what he did there? We now know that Tamaya has dark eyes and dark hair. More important, we know that Tamaya cares what her friends think of her, that she's aware of boys but not boy crazy, and she's concerned about her father's finances beyond her own appearance.

Actually, there's a sub theme of money's scarcity to Fuzzy Mud, the way there is to a great deal of books written now in our time of the aforementioned pending economic collapse. The adults in this story are all struggling to provide a diminishing lifestyle for their families in a time of stagnant wages, which is a contributing factor to why there isn't more supervision to prevent the tragedy that occurs when Tamaya comes across that fabled fuzzy mud.

It's not a coincidence that our tale is set at a private school that none of the parents seem to be able to afford. Tamaya's most pressing concern is her school sweater, which she cannot afford to replace. Her friend, seventh grader Marshal, who is definitely not her boyfriend (it's a whole thing), has his own economic anxiety at home:

He’d gotten in trouble for coming home so late from school. He was supposed to have looked after the twins, and when he hadn’t shown, his dad had had to leave work early. 
“The only way we can afford to keep you at Woodridge is for everyone to do their part,” his father had reminded him. 

One of the questions Sachar raises is why there's no one to look out for the three children who are about to be exposed to mud.  Where are all the parents? And not just in a condescending way that made me go, screw you, Sachar, being a parent is hard, especially when you don't have that sweet Shia-Labeouf-stared-in-the-movie-version-of-my-book money:) 

Although, there is just a little of that. Consider this line by a school administrator during a mandatory evacuation:

“No, we need you to personally pick up your daughter. Your babysitter’s name is not in our files."

This is balanced, however, with a depiction of more caring parents who want to be there for their children and can't be. Sachar isn't making any definitive judgement other than that children need parents (anybody disagreeing with that premise?) and without them they're vulnerable. See how he is more sympathetic toward Tamaya's home life:

Her mother set down the pizza, kissed Tamaya on the cheek, and said, “Help yourself. I just need to answer this one email.” 
The pizza box smelled of onions. Tamaya had to pick off a few strays before putting a slice on her plate. She had to do it all left-handed, so as not to get any of the restorative hand cream on her food.
One email turned into six, but that was fine with Tamaya. The more her mother was wrapped up in work, the fewer questions Tamaya would have to answer. 
Her mother had made a salad as she’d read through her emails. She rarely did only one thing at a time.

I think even young readers who's parents are divorced, likely causing some sort of personal feelings in them toward a parent or two, will be sympathetic to the fact that Tamaya's mom gots to make dat papah. Nonetheless, all personal judgement aside, the fact remains that Tamaya is neither eating a delicious home cooked meal nor having to explain why she's put restorative hand cream on the rash she got after touching the fuzzy mud.

Because her mother is engrossed in work, she misses the rash that's going to threaten her daughter's life. Because she has a meeting scheduled the next morning, they schedule an appointment with the family doctor after school rather than before. Whatever the confluence of circumstances that led to it, Tamaya does not have the adult intervention she needs to prevent her rash from getting much, much worse.

Again, the leading character in this story is a patch of fuzzy mud, and the circumstances that lead not only to its creation, but to the exposure of children to it. It's sobering stuff, even as there's a lot of Sachar's usual humor throughout.

And there's more to this novel than we have time to discuss as this review is already running long. So we won't really discuss how Sachar shows us Tamaya's faith in God without beating us over the head with it. She prays and her faith leads her to do some heroic things, but I wouldn't put Fuzzy Mud in the religion section.  Atheists will enjoy this book as surely as people of faith because the focus is mud, not God.

We won't talk about Marshall and his complicated feelings about himself and Tamaya, but we will make just a little time to discuss Chad before we call it a day. Chad's a bully, and you know I love a good bully. He threatens Tamaya, but when he's afflicted by the same fuzzy mud, she sees past his gruff exterior to his sympathetic under-pinnings.

We'd go into that in more detail if we had time, but we don't, and what I really want you to know about Chad is that he's ultimately not so very bad. He has a couple speeches that are not unlike Judd Nelson's "No, Dad, what about you!?!" speeches in The Breakfast Club, but for the middle grade audience. Here's how birthdays are celebrated at Chad's house:

“No one cooked me lasagna,” Chad said. “No one did anything. You want to know what my dad said? ‘Why should we celebrate the day you were born?’ ”

This isn't a story about Chad's redemption. As I've said, it's a story about mud. But Chad's being sympathetic is crucial because the reader needs to see him as Tamaya sees him. Tamaya's biggest act is the saving of Chad because she believes he's worth saving. She's right, of course, but how can Sachar show us for sure? A number of ways, actually, but he does need to show us.

We need more than just Chad's word that his home life is the sort of toxic environment that breads an angry young bully. And because this is a book that occasionally dives into the perspective of adults, Sachar is able to provide third-party verification while still keeping his word count low:

But she knew the type of boy Chad was. Whatever had happened to him, wherever he was, she hadn’t thought it had anything to do with the rest of the school. Not that she hadn’t been concerned about him. She had been very concerned. She just hadn’t taken his disappearance as a danger sign for the other students. 
She remembered when Chad and his mother first came to her office. His mother wrote out a check for the tuition, handed it to her, and then, right in front of Chad declared, “He’s your problem now.”

And that's going to do it. Fuzzy Mud is a first rate environmental thriller that will both keep you on the edge of your seat as well as make you think. Obviously, we need to know no more than that this is a story by middle grade master Loius Sachar to know its worth reading. Don't miss this book and don't miss Louis Sachar's interview on Wednesday.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Fuzzy Mud:

Tamaya had sat quietly with her hand raised, but then someone else had shouted out, “I want Lincoln,” and then someone else had claimed Washington. Ms. Filbert had assigned those presidents to the shouters, even though she had just told the class, “Sit quietly and wait until I call on you.” 
It was Ms. Filbert who had suggested Calvin Coolidge to Tamaya when it had finally been her turn. “He was a lot like you, Tamaya,” she had said. “They called him Silent Cal because he was known for being quiet.” 
Ms. Filbert had said “being quiet” as though it were some sort of abnormal behavior. You’re the one who just told everyone to sit quietly, Tamaya had thought.

“Rashes are gross,” Monica agreed. “Tell them you stabbed yourself with a pencil!” said Hope. “That’s gross too,” Tamaya pointed out. “But it’s the kind of gross that boys like,” said Monica.

“Chaaaad!” she shouted.
She didn’t have a very loud or strong voice. Ms. Filbert was constantly trying to get her to pro-ject. “You have a lot of good ideas, Tamaya. You need to speak with authority.” Whenever it was her turn to read aloud in class, everyone always complained that they couldn’t hear. And out on the playground, sometimes she’d shout at Monica or Hope, and they wouldn’t hear her, even though they were just on the other side of the dodgeball circle. 
She tried again, this time putting extra oomph behind it. “Chaa—aad!” 
The extra oomph just made her voice crack.

His face was a mass of blisters, crusted with pus and dried blood, and so badly swollen, she could hardly see his eyes.

Within hours of the children’s rescue, everyone who had been involved in the search began showing signs of the rash: redness, small bumps, a tingling sensation. By the next morning, many of these bumps had turned into blisters, and people awoke to find a mysterious powder the color of their skin on their bedsheets. As it turned out, the powder was their skin, or what was left of it after the mutated ergonyms ate “the good parts.”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

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