Down Right Good

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Category: Contemporary
Date Published: May 31, 2011
Number of Pages: 194
Print Price: $15.95
eBook Price: $

With four young children, including two near-teenagers, I am always on the lookout for good “young-adult” fiction.  Down Right Good is the third novel from Karen Kelly Boyce.  The novel’s basic story is straightforward: Angie, a ten year-old with Down’s syndrome, delivers a newspaper in her hometown, encountering adults along her route with adult sorts of problems, for which Angie—in a special way—offers simple, faith-filled solutions. 

Angie’s customers look forward to her regular visits, during which she drops off the tabloid paper and swaps treats and stories from her customers.  For most of Angie’s customers, her visits constitute a sort of regular therapy.  Her suggestions to them are sometimes direct, as when she tells a widowed baker that he needs a wife—and where he can find one:  “I know.  You marry Ruthie [another of Angie’s customers].”  At other times, the depth of her suggestions seems almost unknown to her, as if moved by the hand of God.

The action takes place on a single Saturday.  The story opens in the home of Moma, Angie’s grandmother, with whom Angie has lived since her mother’s death—and her father’s abandonment.  As Angie meanders along her paper route, visiting customers, she is silently pursued by a neighboring young boy named Tommy, a boy tormented by physical abuse, and one bent on harming Angie.  By the end of the day, Angie’s life is in danger, and the townspeople—many of them Angie’s customers—come together to make sense of the ensuing physical and spiritual struggles.  The efforts of the simple child link the people in a God-filled way.  Through her connections with each of them, their lives are forever changed.

The author creates great character vignettes.  Each chapter introduces the entire life and history of a troubled adult along Angie’s route.  A baker’s heart aches from loneliness.  A mother burns with bitterness towards God for the loss of her teenage son.  A minister wallows in self-pity, disappointed by the nature of his parishioners.  These peoples’ problems, histories, and reactions to such problems are biting and realistic, as relayed by the respective narratives.  Perhaps the most dramatic vignette is that of the “boy next door,” Tommy, who antagonizes Angie along her route.

In addition to the vivid character sketches, each chapter begins with brief scripture passage, and a paragraph or two of essay: “Evil is seldom quiet.  It announces itself as it enters a room.  Still, we refuse to see what is right in front of us . . . .”  The characters typically embody and personify the elements announced by the introductory paragraphs.  The last few chapters—where the action in the story reaches its peak—largely omit these opening statements.

Angie and her family are devout Catholics, and many of the adults along her route are, too.  Catholic rituals and sacraments are referenced throughout the story, including a detailed account of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe.  The real Catholic sense of the story lies deeper, however, in the structure of the characters’ paths towards redemption and (for some of them) the acceptance of God’s mercy.  Angie willfully accepts suffering.  The arc of Angie’s choices stitches together God’s will and love for the people that she touches—including even her antagonist and tormentor, Tommy.

The great value of the book lies in the author’s stark presentation of the characters’ histories and flaws.  The most interesting ones are the truly wrecked souls in need of mercy and guidance.  Each reader is drawn into the character histories in a personal way, as the reader’s own experiences with similar characters must uniquely color the perception of the various interactions.

Using a Down’s Syndrome child for the protagonist is not without challenges.  First, Down’s syndrome children typically speak using choppy syntax:  “Nope.  No one remember live Karl – only dead Karl and lock-up mother.  Me know dead Karl and sad prom night. No know any laughing Karl.”  The renditions of this speech are accurate, but occasionally Angie’s limits in speaking are difficult to grasp.  This limitation is simply the consequence of true-to-life speech in this context.  The reader is invited—required, really—to actually feel the challenge of interacting with a Down’s syndrome child and, through empathy, to feel perhaps the child’s frustration as well. 

More information on Down’s syndrome might have been helpful in better understanding Angie’s perceptions and challenges.  In addition, while the characters often describe Angie as being “simple” and incapable of understanding adult problems, her level of perception appears keen throughout.  Angie is given a unique gift “to see angels,” but it is unclear whether this gift specifically carries with it some type of supernatural reasoning, or merely an ability to visually see what others cannot (namely, the guardian angels around her customers and family).  These unresolved issues add some mystery to the background of the story.

The story brings each of the characters’ lives together in a final crescendo of action and collective spiritual reflection.  Mrs. Boyce’s delivery is consistent and tight within the sentence and paragraph.  Some of the detailed character narratives remove the reader from the story for lengthier stretches, but the strength of the book lies in the depth of its characters’ histories: so much of these narratives is necessary for the full impact of the story.  There are perhaps a few places where more action and dialogue might have kept the story lighter and faster—moving, like Angie is moving—towards the next customer, the next life, the next hour, the next stop.  This issue is present in only a few of the chapters, however.  Overall, the story moves quickly and smoothly.

Down Right Good is a great read for Catholic young adult readers and character-junkies.  The idea of the story—even beyond its particular details—hangs in the reader’s mind for days afterwards.  Perhaps this is why the book seems so suited for screenplay material.  It is the image of the imperfect young girl, traveling the battered lane of humanity, saving their souls—that seems so universal, and so Catholic.

ISBN-13: 978-0982895917
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches

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1 Comment

Nov 16, 2014 Norman Boutin

Very nice review of a children's book. When your children become teenagers, finding suitable stories for them will be a challenge. Today, I visited the Christmas fair at our Saint Joseph Church. Somebody has a large display of two or three thousand old books. I saw a teenage girl sitting at an unused table. She was reading George Orwell's "Animal Farm". I couldn't help thinking, "How infinitely more interesting she would find my book, 'Empress Theresa'".

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