A wheelchair–bound teenager learns to survive the damage he’s suffered, emotional as well as physical, in this slight but highly wrought story from McGhee (Was It Beautiful?, 2003, etc.).
While his father sleeps or drinks, 16-year-old paraplegic Joseph spends his days working at a bakery/café with 17-year-old Zap, the owner’s son. Zap's Pied Piper charisma works on all the customers but Enzo, a nine-year-old girl who appears to have nothing to do all day but hang out at the bakery and bicker with Zap, to whom she directs an intense sibling love-hate. Zap, who gives nicknames to everyone, calls Joseph “Flying Joseph” and tells Enzo that Joseph is a hero. Enzo, who calls herself Mighty Thor, desperately wants Joseph to be more, a superhero with superhuman healing powers. Joseph denies any heroism in himself. He also refuses to discuss how he ended up in a wheelchair and why he has left his mother in Utica, N.Y., to live in Minneapolis with his father, a functional alcoholic who works nights as the oven man at the bakery. The story of Joseph’s accident gradually takes shape. When his father left a year earlier, Joseph had to take care of his increasingly unbalanced mother. He had no room for friends or a life of his own. In a moment of derangement, his mother broke his spine by inadvertently knocking him from the top steps of a sliding board into a cement wading pool filled only with fresh snow. In the romanticized, claustrophobic world of Joseph, Zap and Enzo, adults are generally absent and/or untrustworthy, so children must look after each other. The jarring contradiction is that Joseph’s great sorrow is the loss of his mother, who now resides in a mental hospital.
McGhee is a gifted writer, but clever word play and a plethora of pointed metaphors are not enough to bring her fictional world to life.