Review by Deborah Lock
This book, “The Brave” by James Bird, about a boy who overcomes a disability and hard start in life, could have been great. It’s not great. Granted, the book was written for middle school-age children, and has strengths including a compelling premise of overcoming fear and finding true love. Another plus: for those who enjoy geographical familiarity, most of the story is set on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northeastern Minnesota. Other reviewers pronounced “The Brave” as “endearingly earnest,” “an amazing debut,” “bighearted,” and “a novel to cherish.”
Huh? How closely did they read? Granted, the story is make believe and brimming with magic and mystery and ghosts, but this magic and mystery depicts wooden caricatures in a fake reservation setting. Insight into why adults do what they do is rarely offered. All we learn is that one drinks too much alcohol, another is always getting into or out of her truck, and a wise, spooky grandmother appears and disappears.
The best part of the book is the first third. The story starts in California with Collin Couch, 12, who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that isolates him from classmates and frustrates the adults in his life. He calculates the number of letters in sentences spoken to him, and then repeats the number. Specialists attempt to treat Collin, but no one can help. Collin’s father is an alcoholic who has trouble keeping jobs, and must send Collin to live with his Ojibwe mother in Minnesota.
Collin’s mother, Cecelia, meets Collin and his dog, Seven, at the Duluth airport, and drives the boy and dog to her home at the Fond du Lac Reservation. He is welcomed by a grandmother who comes and goes, and by a next door neighbor – Orenda – who spends most of her time in a treehouse. Orenda, wise beyond her years, teaches Collin to be brave when faced with adversity. Sick with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Orenda predicts that one day she will turn into a butterfly. As Orenda loses strength, Collin gains strength both mentally and physically. With the help of some kind of medicine man and after turning into a wolf and killing a boogeyman, or dreaming that, Collin is mostly free from his OCD.
A few things here. First, Collin’s observations are often insightful and touching, like this: “My dad drinks a lot. I guess that is what happens when you have to work a nine-to-five job you hate just to put food on the table for a son you don’t necessarily like. And as hard as I tried to make him like me, it’s pretty hard making an alcoholic happy.”
At the Duluth airport, Collin waits at the baggage claim with Seven and notes that no one sees or speaks to him. Instead, people look at their cell phones or watch the conveyer belt, “searching for their stuff like it’s a race to see who can get out of the airport the fastest.” He watches family members embrace each other, “and parents scooping up their little traveling children. It’s like one of those commercials on TV where everyone is paid to be overly happy.”
They drive to Fond du Lac and I picture a truck at night tooling down Interstate 35 North to State Highway 33 South to Big Lake Road to the reservation. This is where the similarity to the actual reservation and its people ends. Cecelia’s home is deep, deep in the woods where peach trees grow that feed Orenda’s butterflies. Spoiler alert: peach trees don’t grow in northern Minnesota. Apples do. What’s with the peaches?
Another gripe: Collin enrolls in a Duluth school where he is bullied for his disability, and no teacher or administrator seems interested in helping him. I have not attended school in Duluth, but am pretty sure that Collin’s OCD would have been at the very least, acknowledged. Ideally, he would receive coping skills and treatment.
Finally, Collin sees his mother talking to her truck and wonders if all Native Americans have a connection with everything around them, or is it just in his family? Note: I have lived on and worked at the Fond du Lac Reservation and am unaware of truck-talking Ojibwe. (Granted, choice words may be directed to a non-working vehicle engine on a sub-zero morning, but the intent is not conversational.)
One may argue that these points are hypercritical of fiction that’s merely that: stuff that’s all made up. True enough. And the book’s overall premise that humans may gain strength and courage in the face of hardship is a good one. Still, we should be past stereotypes of stoic, wise Indians who speak little and are abnormally attached to the great outdoors.
“The Brave” (Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan, $16.99, 2020) is James Bird’s first book. A screenwriter and director, he lives in New England with his wife and son.