Judgment versus Community

cover-schmidt-orbiting-jupiter

Orbiting Jupiter

ORBITING JUPITER
GARY D. SCHMIDT
CLARION BOOKS, 2015
$18
192 PAGES

In the first chapter of Gary Schmidt’s latest young-adult novel, Orbiting Jupiter, a social worker warns Jack and his parents about Joseph, the foster child they are thinking of taking in. Joseph has served time in two juvenile halls. While in one, he reportedly tried to kill a teacher. And even though Joseph, like Jack, is in middle school, Joseph has another secret that sets him apart. Though only 13, Joseph has a 3-month-old daughter he has never seen.

Jack’s parents refuse the social worker’s offer of a day or two to think about it, deciding instead to welcome Joseph home to their organic farm in Maine. They accept Joseph, understanding that he needs to be trusted, and soon have him taking responsibility by assigning him the task of milking Rosie, one of the family’s cows. Jack makes the choice to stick with his new foster brother, and, in the next few chapters, Jack measures out their relationship by counting the rare occasions when Joseph smiles.

Schmidt gives us a narrator who is believable as a middle-school boy yet also is at times downright poetic.

As Joseph is enfolded into an accepting family, he faces judgment and rejection off the farm. The bus driver and the principal both see Joseph as a problem kid, and tell him so. News travels fast, and soon a group of students are making plans to beat up the misfit. Again and again the world outside his foster family (and apart from three wonderful teachers) sees him as a psychotic pervert.

Orbiting Jupiter presents us with challenging questions. How might we respond to two children having a baby outside of marriage? Would we offer acceptance and love? Can we allow for the possibility that Joseph and Maddie actually loved each other? Or do we respond with judgment, fear and disgust at what seems clearly sinful and wrong? Schmidt’s earlier books have consistently probed the question of how communities enhance or restrict the development of a protagonist. This one carries those themes even further.

When the bus driver picks the boys up on Joseph’s first day of school, the driver challenges Joseph, saying “You’re the kid who had the kid,” reducing Joseph’s entire identity to one moment in time. The principal acts similarly, warning Jack to stay away from Joseph lest he follow in Joseph’s footsteps. Both offer surface judgment rather than compassion. In contrast, Jack’s family takes Joseph in, accepts him into their lives and doesn’t pry. When we get to the middle of the book and Joseph explains how he met Maddie and why she mattered so much to him, his foster family (and we the readers) come to understand that Joseph is neither psychopathic nor perverted and that maybe there was something to what he and Maddie had together.

A CHALLENGING STORY

This book is not an exercise in ethics, nor is it intended to be a model for how Christians ought to relate to the world. It is, first and foremost, like all Schmidt’s work, a challenging story. When I started reading it, I was looking for a voice as strong as Doug’s voice in Schmidt’s earlier book, Okay for Now. It is Jack who tells this story, and though his voice is quieter than Doug’s, it would be a mistake to think that the voice is any less powerful. In a touching scene, late one night, Jack and Joseph talk in their bedroom about the day’s events:

“‘Listen, you should have stayed out of it.’
“‘Maybe,’ [Jack] said.
“‘You should have.’
“[Joseph] jumped off the desk and turned the light out. Against the starlight coming through the window, I saw him turn to watch for Jupiter.
“‘But you know what?’ he said.
“‘What?’
“‘No one’s ever had my back before, except Maddie. Thanks.’
“I got up and stood next to him in the dark. He pointed to Jupiter, lit up, brighter than anything else in the sky.
“The air was cold, it was chiming like a struck tuning fork. I was shivering and my feet were freezing. But I guess I was about as happy as I have ever been.”

Schmidt gives us a narrator who is believable as a middle-school boy yet also is at times downright poetic. That might seem contradictory for someone who doesn’t remember or know what it is like to be a middle-school boy, but the voice rings true. For example, later in the book, Jack says, “You know how teachers are. If they get you to take out a book they love, too, they’re yours for life.” This claim has an odd logic to it. The first part implies that the teacher is somehow tricking the student, but by the end, it seems the student is the one who has won. Jack’s voice is the right voice for this story.

There are also some absolutely delightful connections to Schmidt’s earlier books. One relatively minor character from Okay for Now makes an appearance, and for those who make the connection, it is gratifyingly hopeful cameo. And, as in that book, Schmidt plays with the tension between hope and despair. There are some frightening and sad moments in this book, and the sliver of hope at the end of it is small, but it glows brightly.

There is grace in this book, too. In the midst of all the brokenness in Joseph’s world, there are shining moments when things are clear and breathtakingly beautiful, which serve as a gift to all readers, whether in middle school or middle age.

Bill Boerman-Cornell teaches education at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois.