written by: Tim Whitney
illustrated by: Tamira Ci Thayne, cover
published by: Bancroft Press, 2009
Audience (Reading level): 9 to 13 (6.8 Flesch Kincaid)
Each evening when I picked up this book I kept thinking I sure hope people don’t think this is a seasonal book. The backdrop of the story is November, and celebrating Thanksgiving is part of that. But this is the timeless story of a father and son, their relationship, their responsibilities, and growing up.
According to Heath Wellington (“Senior”) there are three kinds of people in this world: those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who wonder what the heck happened. Young Heath Wellington III (age 11) can’t remember anything about his grandfather, and now he’s gone. As a condition of his grandfather’s will, Heath and his dad (“Junior”) must live at the Sleeping Inn (his grandfather’s house) for at least three months and, if he wants the inheritance, receive the approval of the tenants. While Junior is busy trying to find the loopholes in the will, re-ignite his nonexistent writing career, and disappearing for long periods of time, Heath is busy with the chores and helping the down-on-their-luck tenants his grandfather had taken in.
Like many preteens, Heath is trying to figure out life. More specifically, he’s trying to figure out what the heck happened to his relationship with his father. When his mother left them, his father fell apart. The bills piled up and he turned to alcohol. He was searching for the dad “back in the time when being away from Mom was a vacation, and not an everyday reality.” (p92). He knows that his father and grandfather had a strained relationship and he fears theirs is following that same path.
The combination of his father’s unexplained absences and helping out with the chores, gives Heath the opportunity to be someone who watches things happen, and ultimately, collect enough information to be someone who makes things happen. Heath may be his father’s favorite target, but Winsted, who is the Innkeeper, and the various tenants, help him open his heart in ways he didn’t know how. When his father ridiculed him for saving a young girl from an oncoming train, Heath snapped. He ran one way out into the woods and his father drove off at blazing speed in the car. When Heath is called to the hospital because of a car wreck, he’s sure it’s because his dad was drinking. Just like his dad had done to him, Heath jumped to conclusions!
This is a story about family and forgiveness, so yes, there is something of a happy ending. In fact, the author includes a short afterword that gives you a hint of how things turned out for Heath and his father.
This is an engaging story. Yes, dad comes around, but by the end you see that he isn’t all flaws and that Heath isn’t flawless either. Their relationship will take work and mutual support. The story and the characters’ relationships are well developed and connected. Teens will see themselves in Heath, who sees himself as the ‘victim’ of his father’s wrath: never taking his side, always over reacting, insensitive to his needs. One of the things that stood out for me is how the author held up a mirror for Heath.
Maybe Dad saw the worst in everything. Maybe Heath saw the worst in Dad. And maybe that’s something else they had in common.
Just as Heath was quick to complain about how his father jumped to conclusions, there were times when Heath did the same thing – in judging people or their actions, not just his father’s.
This is a story that just happens to be set at Thanksgiving. There are several themes that are just as relevant in May as they are in November. For example, one of the subplots is that Heath is a poor student who doesn’t like to read … especially not The Hobbit or Call of the Wild. He had to read those for school and he hated it. Yet the author pushes through that opinion and puts Heath in situations where he learns to appreciate books and reading.
This is a book that will appeal to all audiences, not just pre-teen boys. Dormant readers will relate to Heath on several levels. The chapters are a little longer and the margins a bit narrower than what you normally look for in a book to grab resistant readers, but the well-paced events will keep them turning pages. The story is sophisticated enough that it would also make a good high interest/low readability book for high school students.
As I was reading, I kept coming up with book club discussion questions. I could see this in a father-son book club or in one of the Boys & Girls Club reading circles.