Friday, March 06, 2009

review: The Guardian by Joyce Sweeney

The Guardian by Joyce Sweeney. Henry Holt, 2009 (978-0-8050-8019-3) $16.99

Joyce Sweeney seems to be becoming a go-to name for books for reluctant readers; her last two titles were ALA Quick Picks and I wouldn't be surprised if this one is too. It's fast-paced and easy to follow, but told with so much character that the unsophisticated language doesn't feel shallow.

The Guardian is narrated by thirteen-year-old Hunter, who is at a particularly vulnerable time in his life: his foster dad Mike has just died and his abusive foster mom Stephanie, who never wanted him much anyway, is going even more round the bend. Add in an extorting bully, a teacher who hates him, and complicated relationships with three foster sisters, and it's no wonder he starts thinking about prayer.

Haunted by the memory of a "guardian angel" named Gabriel who came in through his bedroom window when he was four, "just like Peter Pan," Hunter prays to him for help--and astonishingly enough, receives it in a very tangible form: money to pay off the bully. Other things in his life seem to suddenly start going his way too, like attracting the interest of a pretty girl. Hunter is ready to believe in angels and miracles--or is he going crazy and causing things to happen by himself, without knowing it? Then Stephanie goes too far in hurting him and the true nature of Hunter's guardian angel is revealed, changing his life forever.

An odd, compelling story, The Guardian was completely engrossing right up to the big reveal, then veered disconcertingly into melodrama. The suspenseful second half of the book is inconsistent and uneven; without spoilers, Sweeney seems to be making one point about Gabriel's true nature, but then goes overboard in another direction. But the characters and relationships are so well drawn that the book as a whole is still very strong. Hunter's narration is solid and straightforward; I enjoyed his insights into himself and other people. On one of his foster sisters: "Her only flaw is that she's in love with me, not because I'm all that, but because I'm a guy who's thirteen and she's a girl who's twelve and we live in the same house without being related. Jessie is fighting forces beyond her control." On working: "The smell of cut grass has kept the memory of Mike with me and I almost feel protective of Stephanie, like I'm the man of the house now. I know that's corny, but it's making me see the whole point of the adult world. You kill yourself, but at the end of the day, you feel like a good guy." This was a brief but haunting reaction to an attack: "I lay still for a while, cuts and all. I've learned over the years the importance of resting up after things like that."

I'm not sure if I can honestly recommend The Guardian as a suspense story, since I didn't find the suspenseful portion very successful. But it's very good just as a story about being a boy living in difficult times, and trying out different ways of making it through.



Blogger Sadako bligged...

Hmmm, a guardian angel, eh? Sounds almost bizarre enough for me. I'll look into finding it.

3/11/2009 9:24 PM  

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